Estadi Ciutat de Valencia, Valencia
25 November, 2012; 21:00 hrs CET
Quite a bit has changed ever since Francesc Vilanova’s team took the pitch the last time. Roberto di Matteo and Mark Hughes, Chelsea and Manchester United legends respectively are jobless. So is Mano Menezes of the Brazilian National Team. However, nothing much changes for Vilanova or his team – the necessity of picking up all three points from this game remains as important as ever. Playing Levante away from home is perhaps the most difficult challenge Barcelona will be tackling prior to the Christmas break.
Lionel Messi is in a scoring spree, but what is a little perturbing is that in the last two matches against Spartak Moscow and Zaragoza, Barca have scored 6 goals and conceded only 1. However, in those 6 goals, Leo has scored 4 and assisted the other two – one to Song (against Zaragoza) and the other to Dani Alves (against Spartak. Albeit, it’s more of a deflection). The Barcelona offence with its array of superstars is a little (extra) dependent on Leo. Well, that’s fine to certain extent as big teams are more or less reliant on their key players – Manchester United on Wayne Rooney or Real Madrid on Cristiano Ronaldo or even Atletico Madrid on Radamel Falcao. Vilanova’s most imminent job would be to sort out over dependence if any and distribute the scoring responsibilities on everyone. On another note, the Catalans might just be assisting Leo to go beyond the coveted mark of 85 goals in a calendar year held by the legendary Gerd Muller.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Levante are one of the most rigid teams of La Liga. This is not an understatement and Levante’s performance last season ruffled more than just a few feathers. They finished 6th ahead of the likes of Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Getafe and just three points adrift of Malaga and two of Atletico Madrid. The fighting spirit is perhaps the biggest asset this team possesses. In the match against Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho’s side had to wait till the 83rd minute for the winning goal. The playing conditions weren’t conducive either. On a water-clogged pitch, the players were more intent on scooping the ball, hoping to find a way through. The same can be expected against Barcelona. Levante is a team which can comeback from most situations and if they take the lead, it will be extremely difficult to break their resolute defence under the leadership of Ballesteros.
Lying 4th, 6 points adrift of Real Madrid, ahead of the likes of Sevilla, Valencia, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao, Malaga is in itself a testimony that Levante is playing beyond their apparent potential. With away wins at Deportivo la Coruna and Helsingborg over the past week, Juan Martínez’s men will take on Barcelona with a buoyed spirit. With the exception of Pedro Lopez (suspension), Dariusz Dudka (injury) and Theofanis Gekas (injury), the hosts have the rest of their players raring to go at the Catalans.
The bad blood between Levante and Real Madrid, another team which plays physically brusque football, is proof enough that the silky passing Catalan side will be in for some clattering tackles. If push comes to shove, Ballesteros might just lose his cool, once again. Albeit it is natural to do so in a match against Real Madrid, but quite unlikely in one against Barcelona. Nonetheless, three point or none, Cules around the globe will be thanking their lucky stars for the wonderful 5-point cushion that Barcelona has at the top of the league and hope that their players come out unscathed physically.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Munua(GK); Lell, Ballesteros, Navarro, Juanfran; Iborra, Diop; Zhar, Barkero, Juanlu; Martins
The defeat against Celtic did not go down well with many. But it’s only natural for a team to lose games in a season. Nonetheless, the
side has picked itself up really well and the sparkling display against Spartak cemented a spot in the next round of the continental championship. Vilanova rotated his squad keeping in mind the tough away game and veterans Puyol and Villa might just get the nod. Both these players have a history of injuries and anything more will be the last thing that the team and management will want from this match. The defensive pairing of Puyol and Pique is back and it is expected that they will start. Levante plays the counter attacking game and with Obafemi Martins at the helm, the Barca defense will have a tricky outing.
Vilanova has been more inclined to rotate the squad than Guardiola. In the last two matches, Vilanova had Xavi-Busquets-Fabregas combo once (against Spartak Moscow) and the other time it was Xavi-Song-Iniesta (against Zaragoza). This ensures that the players are well rested for the rigours of yet another long season. The match against Levante should see the talismanic Barca midfield of Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta fielded with Villa, Messi and Pedro up front. With Alves and Alba on either side of defense, this is perhaps the classical Barcelona that fans are used to seeing. In the absence of Alexis Sanchez, Tello and Fabregas can expect sometime later into the game. David Villa might not play a full match yet again.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes(GK); Alves, Pique, Puyol, Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro
1. Lionel Messi is 5 goals short of Gerd Muller’s record of 85 goals in a single year.
2. Barcelona have scored at least 2 goals in their last 15 away matches in La Liga
3. Barcelona have won 6 of their last 7 matches against Levante in all competitions.
Player To Watch Out For
Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona)
He has been a constant feature in this section. Nevertheless, this time his presence the limelight will be on him as he might near Muller’s mark.
Levante 2 – 3 FC Barcelona
The brand of football Levante play will make them effective against Barcelona as Martins has the potential to stretch the defense. Nevertheless, the Catalans have a great offense too and it is expected that they will outscore the hosts who lost for the first time at home this season to Real Madrid, a couple of weeks back.