Barcelona moved three points clear at the top of La Liga on Sunday, as they beat a spirited Levante side 0-2 at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia.
The Blaugrana were fortunate to be ahead at the break, as David Navarro put through his own net in a first half bossed by the division’s bottom club.
Levante continued to put the visitors under pressure in the second period, too, but Barcelona, who failed to fire in their forward forays, preserved their slender advantage until stoppage time, when Luis Suarez made the game safe.
Atletico Madrid's 3-1 win on Saturday against Eibar drew them level on points with the Catalan giants coming into this one. But this hard-earned victory re-establishes the champions' three-point buffer at the summit; they also have a game in hand to play against Sporting Gijon.
With a congested February schedule to negotiate, a trip to the league’s worst side could have been an ideal chance for Luis Enrique to rest a plethora of Barcelona’s key players. But it was only midfield linchpin Sergio Busquets who was left out of what was a formidable XI, including the attacking trident of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
The visitors flew out of the traps initially and were unlucky not to be ahead inside three minutes. Messi added the finishing touches to a sweeping Barcelona move, although it was incorrectly ruled out for offside.
As Bleacher Report’s Karl Matchett stated, it was a shame the strike was chalked off, as it was an aesthetic delight:
Karl Matchett @karlmatchett
Barcelona denied a perfectly perfect goal by an errant offside flag. 3 mins in and already nearly scored twice vs Levante2016-2-7 11:04:38
Still, Barcelona settled the better, and Neymar tested Levante goalkeeper Diego Marino with a stinging effort in the 17th minute.
Inevitably, with the pressure beginning to mount, the Blaugrana were in front four minutes after. The circumstances were fortunate, though, as Jordi Alba raided down the left and put in a cross that ricocheted off Navarro’s hip and past the Levante stopper.
For a side that has been brittle at the back all season, this opening goal could well have been cue for a capitulation. However, despite Suarez missing a great chance in the 25th minute, Levante responded with admirable gumption.
First, Jefferson Lerma was unable to turn a chance home after latching onto a cross, and then in the 38th minute, Jose Morales surged down the left flank, bending a brilliant shot past Claudio Bravo. Unfortunately for him, the effort struck the inside of the post and bounced out.
When the referee called time on a breathless first half, the illustrious visitors could consider themselves lucky to still be ahead, as Levante exposed them on the break superbly. OptaJose put the efforts of the bottom club into context:
7 - Levante is the third side with more total shots against FC Barcelona in the first halves in La Liga this season. Courage2016-2-7 12:02:27
Spanish football expert Sergi Dominguez lamented the absence of the calming influence of Busquets in the middle of the park:
Sergi Domínguez @FutbolSergi
Poor first half. Levante better side. Busquets indispensable on the pitch, Barça will dominate when he comes on. Alves worst on the pitch.2016-2-7 11:47:23
After some time to recuperate, Barcelona still seemed unable to cope with Levante after the restart. This time it was Bravo who came to their aid, as some neat play from Giuseppe Rossi saw the forward manufacture a yard and hammer a fine shot that was batted away by the Chilean 'keeper.
The hosts were well shackling the illustrious attacking talents of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, restricting the supply into the feet of the devastating attacking trio.
With Levante not letting their grip on the game go, Sky Sports' Spanish football expert Graham Hunter called for some changes for the European champions:
Graham Hunter @BumperGraham
As well as #Levante are playing #Barça sloppy positionally. Busquets and Arda must profile as good changes2016-2-7 12:09:42
In the 68th minute, Busquets came on in place of Ivan Rakitic, and suddenly Barcelona did look much more settled in possession, with the anchoring midfielder dictating the pace of the contest and snuffing out opposition attacks.
However, the change didn't really do too much for Barca's attacking play, as Levante still defended manfully. Nevertheless, as opportunities dried up for the hosts and the tempo with which they played began to take a toll, the superior technical quality of the Catalan side allowed them to see out the latter stages with minimal fuss.
Indeed, with Levante desperately searching for an equaliser in stoppage time, Barcelona broke forward with Messi, who was able to find Suarez in space; the Uruguayan made no mistake with his finish, fizzing a shot with the outside of his foot past Marino.
As WhoScored.com noted, it was a strike that makes Suarez the outright leader of the top-scorer charts:
Luis Suarez: Has scored more goals (20) than any other player in La Liga this season https://t.co/vay2ucM3J12016-2-7 12:49:09
Following the highs of their 7-0 win over Valencia in midweek, this clash was always going to an intriguing one for Barca, and Levante, to their credit, made this a competitive spectacle. In the end, the quality, knowhow and temperament of these Blaugrana stars got them through with three points intact.
It’s a win that heaps pressure on Real Madrid, who face Granada late on Sunday; Barcelona’s great rivals now trail the league leaders by seven points.
While this kind of performance didn’t send out a particularly resounding message to their title rivals, in a section of the season that includes so many games, even this great Blaugrana outfit were going to have to grit their way through some matches. Enrique will be delighted they were able to do so here.
As we can see here courtesy of AS English, this win was a landmark result for Barcelona, as they've now gone 28 games in succession in all competitions without suffering a defeat:
AS English @English_AS
Luis Enrique's Barça equal the club record - 28 games without defeat (23 wins, 5 draws) in all competitions https://t.co/ukLdzus6dI2016-2-7 12:53:30
Afterward, Enrique claimed he was happy with the levels his team reached and sought to play down the significance of the aforementioned sequence:
AS English @English_AS
Luis Enrique: "We put in a complete game - if we hadn't, Levante would have put us in difficulties. It's a fair result".2016-2-7 13:04:35
AS English @English_AS
Luis Enrique on unbeaten record: "It's great but it's only numbers; at the end of the season we'll see if it means we can pick up a trophy"2016-2-7 13:05:53