Reducing the gap from 10 to 4 in just a manner of weeks may seem massive, but it effectively changes nothing unless FC Barcelona are near perfect for the remaining 6 games of the season. Four points is still a two-game swing, and as the season shortens, so does the margin for error. Tonight, Barça take to the Ciutat de Valencia where a familiar foe has reared its lengthy head. No, not Levante, our opponents, who Barcelona has only lost to on one occasion, but the grass on the pitch. Again, there is news (which Levante manager Juan Ignacio Martínez denies) that Levante have allowed the grass to grow longer and have watered it less, in order to derail our passing potential. Seriously though, this is far from a straightforward game. Levante are without question the surprise team of the season, having led La Liga in the early stages and fought to stick around in European places, currently occupying 5th place, just 4 points off their city rivals Valencia in 3rd. With a monumental trip to London coming up, Pep may be looking at our smallish squad and considering some rotation, knowing well his men must achieve victory today.
Eighteen players will make the trip this morning, including Alves and Piqué who both received medical clearance following minor muscular injuries. Despite receiving his green light earlier this week after many months out, Afellay is not included in the squad. Joining him on the absentee list is Fontàs and Villa, but el Guaje is nearing the end of his recovery. Of course Abidal, who cannot really be labelled injured, should miss the rest of the season, but all reports indicate that he is recovering well from his surgery. Keita also will not make the trip with a thigh discomfort.
Pep equaled Rijkaard’s winning total Tuesday versus Getafe, with his 112th victory in 146 games, resulting in a 76.8% winning ratio, the best in club history. Victory no 113 tonight will edge him ever closer to the all time club record, held by the former (still should be) Honorary President Johan Cruyff, of 183 wins in 306 games. That victory will not come easy. Despite this stadium being a stage for 2 of our recent Liga titles (2005, 2011), Barça haven’t won often at Levante. Of 6 total trips, just 2 have resulted in victory, once in 1963/4 and a 4-1 win in 2007/8. There have been 3 draws, and 1 loss, though that came in 1965. Meaning, Pep himself is yet to win at this stadium, with a draw last season, but it should be noted it was his only opportunity as Levante were in Segunda the previous two seasons.
Former manager Luis García Plaza sought greener pastures with newly oil-rich Getafe last season, but club president Francisco Catalan must be grinning ear to ear after he appointed Juan Ignacio Martínez (JIM). In his first ever stint as a manager in the top flight, after 15 years managing in the 2nd and 3rd divisions, JIM has not wasted his long-awaited opportunity to shine on the big stage. With 48 points in 32 games, he has already bested Levante’s record league finish, which occurred last year under Plaza, by 3 points. Some accomplishment. The secret to their success, according to club captain Sergio Ballesteros, is “pizza and beer”. Ballesteros was alluding to the culture and attitude the squad has taken. Knowing full well they are an assimilation of players in their final years and La Liga journeymen, they own that label and are not trying to be the mega fit, scientifically engineered athletes they simply cannot be anymore. When Levante beat Real Madrid in the 3rd round, the average age of the starting 11 was 31.7, with only 2 players under 30. The back line, including two 37 year olds in Ballesteros and Javi Venta, averaged 35.5 years old. Irrespective of where Levante finally finish, it has been a famous year, one the squad has admitted to enjoying massively, and if JIM does lead them to a European position, possibly even a Champions League spot, there won’t be a proper football fan around who wouldn’t smile about it.
Giant killers at home, having already slain Real Madrid, Málaga, Sevilla, Villarreal, and Atlético Madrid, Levante will be full of confidence tonight with nothing to lose and all to gain.
Sporting 3-2 Levante
Levante 2-0 Atlético de Madrid
Valencia 1-1 Levante
Levante 0-2 Osasuna
Sociedad 1-3 Levante
Farinós, Koné, and Javi Venta all didn’t train late this week, but each have injuries that should not preclude them tonight. Koné is particularly important. After a great early career at PSV, Koné got a big move to at the time high-flying Sevilla, a move that couldn’t have flopped more. Over 5 seasons (one out on loan), he scored just 1 league goal in his 40 appearances. Under JIM, the Ivory Coast international has more than duodecupled his La Liga record.
Predicted Starting XI: Munúa – Venta – Ballesteros – Cabral – Juanfran ; X.Torres – Iborra – Valdo – Barkero – Botelho ; Koné
10 league wins on the trot, 5 on our travels, has seen a late surge resulting in a real hope to overhaul Mourinho’s men. Despite, Champions league games in-between and injuries to contend with, Pep has kept the ship sailing true, assisted by his first mate Lionel Messi with goals in his last 8 league matches. With Chelsea coming up soon, it won’t be much of a surprise at all to see Thiago or Tello surface tonight perhaps for Xavi and Alexis. Guardiola however knows the importance of this match, maybe more important than Chelsea with a 2nd leg still to play, so he will not put out an 11 he believes wholly cannot win.
Barcelona 4-0 Getafe
Zaragoza 1-4 Barcelona
Barcelona 3-1 AC Milan
Barcelona 2-0 Athletic Bilbao
AC Milan 0-0 Barcelona
Predicted Starting XI: Valdés – Adriano – Puyol – Mascherano; Alves – Thiago – Busquets – Iniesta ; Pedro – Messi – Tello
Guardiola has only visited Levante’s ground once, drawing, but in process winning his 3rd league title. Barcelona lost in the 60s (5-1) but the order of the day at Ciutat Valencia is a draw. Hopefully, not again tonight.
As mentioned, Levante are very comfortable in their role as the pesky old guys that on their day can frustrate a giant into defeat. With nothing to lose, surely seeing a loss tonight as no real damage done, Levante will draw upon their tactics against Real Madrid that ended in victory. Barcelona will dictate possession and find it difficult to break through the wall that is Levante’s defense, with a massive-sized man called Ballesteros leading the line. An early goal will as usual do wonders, but patience could be the key tonight as we seek to grind down a team and hopefully pounce in the final minutes of the first half, our most fruitful goal-scoring period this season. A few starters like Xavi, Iniesta, and/or Fàbregas could be rested allowing Thiago and Tello to shine. Pep’s Barça have always come through in the clutch, tonight is another opportunity to prove just that.
Levante 0 – Barcelona 2
Image credit: LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images