Barcelona handed out a pummeling to struggling Levante as Henry finally opened his league account for the Catalan club and Lio Messi continued to distance himself with his brilliance from absent Ronaldinho, whilst looking more and more like the REAL next Maradona.
The opening minutes of the match were slightly nervous and there were minor indications that the poor state of the pitch — patches of turf could be seen cutting up during the opening stages — could play some role in the match’s outcome. The omens were not good for Levante, however, as Barça had scored 8 goals in the previous 4 league encounters between the clubs at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium.
With Oleguer and Thuram at right-back and centre-back respectively, the Barça defense was less solid than in previous matches and some dilly-dallying from the ageing Frenchman nearly let in a Levante goal for what would have been a surprise lead. However, this glimmer of hope was to be short-lived for the pedestrian Valencian team, who, lacking in any imagination playing a 4-5-1 formation, clearly hoped to stifle to Barça attack in order to get a draw, a tactic which included an especial amount of attention paid to young wizard Lionel Messi — one of numerous hard challenges coming in on the Argentinian as early as the 4th minute. This would all prove to be in vain, however, once Barça’s attacking play got going.
The warning came as early as the 7th minute, when the much-improved Xavi spotted Messi in acres of space and lofted over a perfectly weighted through ball. However, an erroneous offside call — one of many in the match from the assistants, who don’t seem to have understood the rule regarding interference with play — gave Levante a let-off they barely deserved, as Messi, in such imperious form, surely would have finished from the ensuing one-on-one.
In the 16th minute, a Levante defender panicked faced with the pace of the oncoming Messi and miskicked, allowing the Argentinian to fire home and open the scoring. Once more, however, a poor refereeing decision penalized los culés and the scores stayed equal… for a matter of seconds. From a poor Barça corner — how many goals do Barça score directly from corners? not very many — Storari flapped at the ball, Messi spun and directed a powerful drive towards goal and Henry was on hand to confidently knock in the rebound after the Levante keeper had kept out the new Maradona’s attempt.
The second goal did not take long to come, and it was once more fruit of the Henry-Messi partnership. With Levante’s Descarga leaving huge spaces at right-back, Messi played a sublime through pass with his right foot and the Frenchman offered up his trademark sidefooted curler into the bottom left hand corner — the nonchalance with which the goal went in suggested that Henry’s old aplomb had returned, as if he had been scoring every game.
The rest of the first half passed without too much incident, although some nice midfield interplay between Deco — back to the magisterial crack who was so influential in the Champions League-winning season — Iniesta and Xavi threatened to create further openings. Messi continued to probe and to trouble the Levante defense with his movement and skill — the 20 year old had the ball taken from his feet by an opponent on no more than four occasions over the 90 minutes. At 2-0 at half time the match was not officially over, but a comeback looked extremely unlikely, and there was more good news for Barça as club captain Carles Puyol replaced the excellent Gabi Milito at half-time, Puyol making his first appearance of the season.
And easy it proved to be for the Catalan giants, with the third goal, and Henry’s hat trick, coming almost immediately after the restart. A fortuitous deflection from a Deco pass intended for Messi let in Henry down his favoured left-wing and the Frenchman gave Storari the shifty-eyes, feigning right, before sliding the ball into the left hand side of the net. A fourth goal soon followed, and what a goal it was — Messi collecting the ball towards the left by-line, moving infield and tying two Levante defenders into knots before skimming the ball into the bottom left hand corner.
At this point, it was just a question of how many, and were it not for the decision to withdraw Messi (with a view to the coming Champions League group match away in Stuttgart) for Dos Santos, the Argentine could well have helped himself to a hat-trick. As it was, Barça took their foot of the pedal, understandably, and with a further change following Dos Santos’ entrance (the unneeded Sylvinho on for the tireless and excellent Abidal just after the hour mark), the devastating rhythm of the first half had been lost, although Barça could point to further errors by the linesmen — both Dos Santos, who showed some good touches but did not do too much up front, and Henry, denied clear one-on-one chances following superb through balls from Iniesta and Xavi — as the reason for not increasing the scoreline, which frankly could have risen to 6 or 7 nil.
With the result settled, Levante began playing for pride, and their efforts were much improved (albeit against a sauntering Barcelona) after the introduction of the industrious Ettien, whose midfield play indirectly led to the attack in which Puyol felled Geijo to give Viqueira the opportunity to score a consolation goal, dispatching the penalty with ease. After the penalty, apart from some huffing and puffing from the Levante players, as well as a few clashes between Levante defenders and Gio Dos Santos, the game concluded with relatively little to report.
All in all, a great performance from Barça, all of who’s attacking players had excellent games. Messi looks absolutely unplayable at the instant, Henry looked his old self again, roaming dangerously up the left wing, whilst Iniesta and Deco continued to excel in midfield, as they have done for the last few games, coinciding with Barça’s return to form (and there are a fair few Barça fans who are ready to see in Deco’s upturn in form one of the principal reasons, along with Messi’s brilliance, for Barça’s change in fortunes).
The only possible negative for the Catalans will be the slightly disappointing performance of Thuram (who will certainly not get off the bench much this season, fitness of Márquez and Milito permitted) and Puyol, this last perhaps a little off-pace in his comeback match, all of which is clearly overshadowed by the splendour of Henry and especially of Messi.