Barcelona vs Levante
Normally this would be considered a La Liga home banker, but this is no ordinary season in Spain.
The reigning champions are slightly off the pace, indeed none of the leading lights have convinced in comparison to previous years.
In fact, as form stands, it will be a major surprise if Barcelona or either of the Madrid giants go onto triumph in this season’s Champions League.
Yet with all respect to Levante, who are achieving fine things and on course to secure a fourth successive stay in the division, Barcelona should win this Sunday night Nou Camp clash with something to spare.
They need to as well after last weekend’s La Liga news headlines were led by their 2-0 reverse at Valencia, a game where, aside from the performances of talisman Lionel Messi and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, they failed to produce anything near their lofty standards.
They already have a new manager, of course, in Quique Setien who revealed this week that his biggest aim with Barcelona is to help the team to Champions League glory.
That could be a big ask in that he has just 18 senior players available to him for the rest of the season – 17 if you count the injured Luis Suarez.
This after the club let go of Carles Alena, Carles Perez, Jean-Clair Todibo and Moussa Wague in the January transfer window.
Even more of the attacking onus now will be on Antoine Griezmann and, if he can become prolific, then perhaps Setien’s dream can come true.
Levante can prove stubborn opponents on the biggest stages but Griezmann also knows how to find the net against them and this is an opportunity Barca must take to pull back the three-point gap on leaders and arch-rivals Real Madrid.
With Real meeting Atletico in the Madrid derby this weekend, that feeling is strengthened.
Yet again, you cannot look beyond Messi to be the matchwinner.
He has been superb again this season and bagged a brace in the 5-0 Copa del Rey victory over Leganes in midweek.
With Suarez and Ousmane Dembele out of action, he is relied upon more than ever and leads the Barcelona scoring charts once again this season, hitting 14 goals in 15 La Liga starts in 2019-20.
The Argentine maverick has also been directly involved in more La Liga goals this season (20 – 14 goals and six assists) than any other player in the division.
At the other end, Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet should continue their partnership in central defence, while Sergio Busquets may be rested after playing on Thursday night.
For the visitors, who have suffered three straight league defeats, manager Paco Lopez will be without Rober Pier and Ivan Lopez for the trip.
Nemanja Radoja could also miss out due to a hamstring injury while both Oier Olazábal and Enis Bardhi are doubtful.
This should really be a home banker against a side with a lousy record against the Catalans – they have lost 21 of their 29 meetings.
However, it would be unwise to take Levante lightly, despite their inconsistency.
They beat Barca 3-1 in November when three goals in eight minutes from Jose Campana, Borja Mayoral and Nemanja Radoja sealed a day to remember for the home side.
That was only the second time in 16 years that Levante have beaten their illustrious opponents in the top flight.
Last season, Barcelona edged this contest by a single goal as Messi came off the bench to score the goal that confirmed the title.
After a 2-1 first leg defeat, they also beat them 3-0 at home in the Copa del Rey 12 months ago – Dembele (two) and Messi the scorers once again.
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