Levante lead Barcelona at HT of their cup clash
True to their home showing against Barcelona before the winter break, hosts Levante flew out of the traps at Ciutat de Valencia stadium. Paco Lopez side had been unfortunate to be on the end of a Lionel Messi masterclass in the corresponding fixture between the two sides. However, with the Argentine and his equally deadly strike partner Luis Suarez, absent from the travelling party for this clash, the hosts seemed confident of causing a cup upset. Albeit even if they still had to contest a return tie at the Nou Camp the following week.
Nevertheless, the hosts hurried and harried their opponents in the opening minutes, and soon earned their reward. A trip on Mayoral on the left hand side of the field, provided the hosts with an early chance to flood the Barcelona box. And so they did, to emphatic effect. The ball was floated into the box brilliantly, and equally as brilliant was the soaring header from midfielder Cabaco. He rose highest in the centre of the box, to nod the ball back in the direction it came, and into the bottom corner of the net. Levante were ahead inside just three minutes!
Given the wholesale changes made by coach Ernesto Valverde, perhaps Barcelona fans would have been expecting a slow start to the game, from their side. Yet 'slow' does not really fully describe the lacklustre display produced by the visiting side in the opening half an hour. While they maintained a constant threat on the counter attack with the likes of Coutinho and Dembele, it was further back up the field that the side struggled.
In truth, the makeshift defence; featuring two academy graduates, a new signing and an out of favor summer signing, looked just that, makeshift. it was clear that the four players had little to no experience of playing alongside one another. To their credit, Levante recognised this and took full advantage. Attacking duo Boateng and Mayoral ran rings around the quartet; cutting inside and playing intricate one-two passes into the channels.
In fact, with just twenty minutes on the clock, it was this exact combination that would hand the hosts a commanding lead in the match. A swift attacking move down the right hand side of the pitch, saw Boateng slide the ball into the channel for Mayoral to chase. Upon reaching the ball, Mayoral drove into the box, before firing a shot low towards the far post. The strike could not have been hit any sweeter, and therefore Barcelona keeper Cilessen could do nothing to stop the ball flying into the bottom corner of the net.
Having gone two goals down, it was at this point that Barcelona began to ramp up the pressure on their hosts, in a bid to hit back with an immediate response. Chief attacker Ousmane Dembele did his best to drag his side back into the match, producing three quick-fire efforts on goal. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, is was to be 'one of those evenings' for him, as hosts keeper Aitor Fernandez was in inspired form, producing a string of saves to deny his every attempt.
With the interval looming, Barcelona would create their first guilt-edged chance of the game. A low cross from the right hand side had full back Semedo sliding in at the back post, only to miss the ball by mere milimetres! Indeed, that was to be the last goal-mouth action of the half, as Levante went into the break good value for their two goal advantage.
The second half of the encounter was more like a typical cup tie, with both sides going toe to toe, for the chance to land an all important hammer blow on their opponent. It must be said that visitors, and Cup holders, Barcelona were very much improved after the break. Perhaps a few choice words from under-pressure boss Ernesto Valverde proved to be the catalyst for a revival in their performance.
Also, it seemed that the Barcelona boss had seen enough from his side in the first 45 minutes, to introduce a host of more recogniseable senior figures throughout the second half. Still, striker Ousmane Dembele remained the clear bright spark for the 'Blaugrana', having another series of efforts saved by Aitor Fernnadez across the half.
The change in performance was clear from the visitors though, as the introductions of Denis Suarez, Sergi Roberto and Lenglet seemed to add an all important familiarity to the side, who in turn responded by becoming more confident and fluid in possession.
As the matched ticked towards it's conclusion, it seemed that Levante were on course to take a solid two goal advantage, into their second leg trip to Catalunya. Well, that was until five minutes from time, when Denis Suarez was bundled over in the area, and Barcelona were awarded a spot kick. In the absence of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez; fellow South American, Philippe Coutinho, stepped up to take the responsibility for the kick.
The Brazilian remained calm, adding a stutter inyo his run up, before smashing the ball into the bottom corner of the net. Barcelona had finally broken the Levante resistance, and in doing so, had snatched an all importany away goal in the tie.
The final five minutes of time were hectic, as Barcelona pushed for an equaliser, and Levante tried anything possible to preserve their now slim advantage ahead of the second leg. Once more, Ousmane Dembele had enough time to test Fernandez, on this occasion with a long range drive, but it was not the Frenchman's evening. Alas, the referee called time on the match, and Levante would take a very narrow lead into the second leg.
Overall, Levante were well worth their control of the scoreline. A strong display from Lopez' side, particularly in the first half, would have had fans hoping of causing a major cup upset, come full time next Thursday. However, a much improved display from holders Barcelona in the second half must have felt like a bit of a sucker punch. Not to mention the late penalty that granted them a priceless away goal. Nonetheless, the tie remains finely poised heading into it's second instalment next week.