Three second-half goals condemned the Liga champions to a first loss in eight with their Argentine playmaker the only bright point on a miserable day
Barcelona have occasionally been accused of Messidependencia over the years – reliance on their captain and talisman Lionel Messi – but it now seems truer than ever.
Ernesto Valverde’s side, in the coach’s third year in charge, are reliant on the Argentine and appear to have little else up their sleeve. That was explicitly clear in their 3-1 defeat at Levante on Saturday in La Liga, ending a streak of seven consecutive victories.
Real Madrid would have the chance to overtake the champions later in the day at Real Betis, after Barcelona’s collapse in Valencia. Messi was the only man in yellow holding his own for the visitors, as Barcelona looked to build on their emphatic 5-1 triumph over Real Valladolid in midweek.
The Argentine No. 10 scored two goals and set up two more in that game, in a magnificent individual display. Only another performance of that magnitude would have been enough for Barcelona to take anything against Levante, after a dire display.
It took Barcelona 31 minutes to create their first real opportunity, with Messi slipping in Antoine Griezmann who saw his shot saved. The French forward was forced to take it on his weaker right foot and could not beat Aitor Fernandez with a low effort.
Griezmann seemed to spend more time in his own half than in the opposition’s territory, working extremely hard but not providing the danger his high-profile arrival promised. At Atletico Madrid the Frenchman was notable for his impressive work-rate under Diego Simeone, but also his attacking prowess.
Barcelona spent €120 million on the forward to add spark to their frontline but Griezmann has twice as many bookings as he has goals. The forward picked up his fourth of the season against Levante as he got his hands dirty.
What Barcelona lacked beyond Messi, who broke the deadlock from the penalty spot in the 38th minute, was flair. Valverde decided, bizarrely unless the forward had suffered an unannounced injury, to leave Ousmane Dembele at home.
Say what you like about the former Borussia Dortmund forward’s professionalism, but he is completely unpredictable on the pitch and would have given Levante’s backline much more to think about than Messi’s partners Luis Suarez and Griezmann.
The Uruguayan huffed and puffed but came far from blowing Levante’s house down – offering little movement and slowing Barcelona’s play – before being forced off with a calf injury. Valverde sent Carles Perez on to replace him, another curious decision, with the electric Ansu Fati also available on the bench.
His chickens came home to roost in the second half with three Levante goals in a whirlwind seven-minute period rocking the Spanish champions. Jose Campana, Borja Mayoral and Nemanja Radoja struck as the defence, and in particular the beleaguered Gerard Pique struggled.
The centre-back often starts seasons at a slow pace but he is even further from his usual best at the moment. Valverde has batted away questions about Pique’s extra-curricular activities – like his involvement in the Davis Cup – but they will continue to be asked if he cannot raise his game.
Messi did his best to drag Barcelona back into the match, scoring a brilliant, battling second, but it was revoked after referral to VAR because Griezmann was offside in the build-up.
That summed it up in a microcosm – Messi being let down by those around him – and nothing indicates that things will be any different as the season progresses.