Camp Nou, Barcelona
April 20, 2013; 2000 CET
It looks like FC Barcelona’s season is going to the wire, on the domestic front at the very least. Though Real Madrid are 13 points adrift from the Catalan giants, the Jose Mourinho managed outfit have not yet conceded their La Liga crown to the Blaugrana. FC Barcelona just need three more victories, or 9 points, to secure their fourth league title in 5 years. Levante UD on the other hand find themselves sitting at the 12 position of the Spanish Primera Division. It’s the ungrateful area of mid-table, the no man’s land of any given league table. Not quite good enough for the upper echelons of La Liga and qualification for a European competition, but not bad enough to run the danger of descending down to Spain’s second tier championship, Liga Adelante.
Coincidentally, Levante’s gap between themselves and relegation-threatened Real Zaragoza also amounts to 13 points. It’s a tricky position for both Barcelona and Levante as it lends itself to complacency. Win or lose, both these teams don’t have to face immediate ramifications. Barcelona will probably have to postpone their championship celebrations for another week, whereas the Granotes are still almost assured their continued stay in La Liga.
While a victory courtesy of the Catalan outfit will not have an instant impact on the La Liga race, it’ll help maintain their positive momentum in their build-up towards the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals against Bayern Munich.
Unlike their German counterparts, Barcelona have not been able to replicate and maintain their best form from earlier in the campaign. Even the long-awaited return of Tito Vilanova to the Barcelona dugout has failed to inspire any kind of consistency. It’s hit or miss, and varies on a per-match basis. One match Barcelona easily dispatches AC Milan 4-0 in the Champions League, but struggle to even draw against relegation battlers Celta Viga not long thereafter.
However, for the very first time in the ongoing 2012/13 La Liga campaign, Barcelona have kept two back-to-back clean sheets. Though it must be noted they accomplished this feat against La Liga whipping boys RCD Mallorca and aforementioned Real Zaragoza. Not exactly the yard stick for measuring the quality of Barcelona’s defense.
Team News and Tactical Brief
The Catalan behemoth will most likely rest a number of key players for their mid-week encounter against Bayern. Lionel Messi is all but certain not to feature on Saturday evening, whereas Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets will probably only make cameo appearances, if at all. In place of the undisputed quartet, Tito Vilanova is likely to call upon the services of Cesc Fabregas, Thiago, Sergio Roberto and Alex Song.
As it has been the case for the entire campaign thus far, question marks remain over the pairing at central defense. Due to the injuries to Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, Gerard Pique is the only centre-back of repute available to Tito Vilanova. It is only because Barcelona’s manager has completely lost faith in Alex Song as a makeshift centre-back that Marc Bartra was picked in the last couple of games. Even Bartra doesn’t enjoy the trust of Vilanova, despite him being a natural, and more importantly, a La Masia-educated centre-back. Evidence of that can be found in the return leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain when full-back Adriano was preferred to Marc Bartra.
The involvement of Gerard Pique is also far from certain. If here were to get injured in the tie against Levante, Barcelona would have to face Bayern without a reputable centre-back. Given Barcelona’s bad luck in regards to injuries one would assume that Tito Vilanova opts to field another player in place of Piquenbauer. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Tito Vilanova decided to stick with his preferred personnel (Lionel Messi included if he’s available for selection).
Probable Starting Line-up (4-3-3): Valdes, Montoya, Pique, Bartra, Alves, Song, Roberto, Thiago, Tello, Fabregas, Alexis
The Valencian outfit will likely field their best XI against an experimental (in the truest sense of the word) Barcelona side. Having exited the Europe League last month, this tie is the sole highlight of their remaining season. At present it looks highly improbable that Levante will qualify for next season’s Europa League campaign. The Granotes are 10 points adrift of city rivals Valencia CF, who occupy the 6th place. It’s a tough challenge, especially when there are only 7 matches left on the calendar. Still, apart from Barcelona, the rest of the opponents on Levante’s fixture list are manageable tasks.
Unsurprisingly though is Levante’s abysmal away record. Thus far the Valencian side has conceded 29 goals in 16 games on the road (1,81 goals per game), and scored an underwhelming 13 goals (0,81 goals per game) away from home. Luckily for the Grantoes, they only have two more away games after the Barcelona fixture, against bottom dwellers Mallorca and erratic Athletic Bilbao.
Levante’s main threat comes from the trio of Barkero, Ruben Garcia and Obafemi Martins in a 4-2-3-1, with the latter operating as sole target man. Between them, the three have accumulated a respectable 16 league goals. It’s still less than any Barcelona forward line sans Lionel Messi, but then again it’s probable the Blaugrana will rest their best marksmen for the Bayern tie.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Munua, Lell, Ballesteros, Navarro, Juanfran, Iborra, Diop, Zhar, Barkero, Garcia, Martins
Player to Watch Out For
Cristian Tello (Barcelona)
The La Masia graduate is slowly but surely coming of age. Three goals and one assist in his last three outings suggest that there’s more to come from the youngster. His well-taken brace against Real Zaragoza in particular is a testimony to his predatory instincts in front of goal. Unlike the much more hyped Gerard Deulofeu – who could make a surprise appearance – Tello has no penchant for showboating and always looks to finish.
Barcelona 3-0 Levante UD
Even in light of Barcelona’s upcoming Champions League semi-final, the second string the Blaugrana XI should prove more than just a formidable opponent for Levante. The next generation of La Masia graduates in particular will look to impress, perhaps even harboring the hope that a good performance against Levante parlays into a starting berth against Bayern Munich.
Blast From The Past