The final whistle sounded amongst the fervent atmosphere within the Camp Nou. Barcelona appeared to have passed their final test. After playing with ten men for the duration of the second half, Ernesto Valverde’s side hung on to a 2–2 draw against Real Madrid on 6 May 2018, to place them just 270 minutes away from a historic feat, unlike anything that had been achieved in Spanish football.
Draws, particularly in Clásicos, are hardly sources of celebration. In such a fierce rivalry, winning at all costs is the perennial objective, with spoils only reluctantly shared. However, following Sergi Roberto’s controversial sending off on the cusp of half-time, as well as Gareth Bale’s equaliser just under 20 minutes from the final whistle, Barcelona’s resilience prevailed and was justifiably heralded.
After all, they hadn’t only held firm, they had avoided defeat once again, as they had done all season in LaLiga. If they could replicate such mettle in the subsequent 270 minutes of football, their names would be etched into the history books.
Ordinarily, the result would have been largely insignificant. Barcelona had already wrapped up their 25th title in their previous fixture, a 4–2 win away at Deportivo courtesy of a Lionel Messi hat-trick. Their domestic success was only augmented some weeks prior to the clinching result, too, with their 5–0 demolition of Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final still fresh in the memory.
Having also crashed out of the Champions League in the infamous second-leg defeat to Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in April, Barça had seemingly little else to play for as the season dwindled to its conclusion. However, with three winnable matches still on the agenda for Valverde and his men, achieving an unprecedented 38-game unbeaten season in LaLiga appeared to be little more than an inevitability.
Triumphing in the top flight of Spanish football without losing a single match would not have been a first, but for Barcelona, it would have been an unrivalled accomplishment in its own right. Athletic went unbeaten in 1929/30 before Real Madrid followed suit in the following campaign. However, these records came during times in which only 18 games were played by each team. Barcelona, meanwhile, found themselves on the verge of going 20 better.
The trio of fixtures that stood between Barca and history were promising. A home clash against Villarreal was next on the agenda before a trip to a resurgent Levante side. Then, the final day would see Camp Nou bid farewell to Andrés Iniesta against Real Sociedad, with the legendary midfielder preparing to play his final match for the club as he embarked upon a new journey with Vissel Kobe in Japan.
Barcelona turned in an assured performance as the first test of their final three proved to be little more than a cinch. They annihilated Villarreal with a 5–1 win without too many frills. In fact, La Blaugrana had largely avoided any scares on their way to Spanish domination in 2017/18 as they displayed real poise and ruthlessness, with Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid falling by the wayside, despite the latter’s third consecutive victory in the Champions League.
Valverde and his side had only seen their unbeaten streak come under threat on a few occasions. Late goals salvaged results against Atlético and Espanyol, while their greatest challenge came on 31 March. Barça found themselves 2–0 down in the 87th minute of their trip to Sevilla, and many appeared resigned to the reality of their hopes of invincibility being snatched from them after a disappointing performance.
Instead, two goals in two minutes just before stoppage time from Luis Suárez and Messi saw them come away from the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán with their record still intact, and another valuable point on the board.
On Spanish soil, Barcelona’s mentality appeared impenetrable. Their will to dodge the disappointment of defeat saw them concede only 24 goals in the space of 36 matches as they geared up to conclude their season in style. The trip to Levante appeared to have been the final banana skin as pursued a fairytale ending, but poor planning and misinformed decision-making from the hierarchy at Camp Nou proved costly.
Barcelona revealed on 10 May that they would interrupt their LaLiga run-in to travel across the world to South Africa for a friendly match against the Mamelodi Sundowns on 16 May, just three days after their battle against an in-form Levante side. Having agreed to field some key men in the fixture on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in hindsight an arguably fateful decision, Valverde made the bold call of resting Messi entirely for the upcoming trip to the Estadi Ciutat de València.
The fixture congestion, particularly at the back-end of the season, proved damning, and Levante were the beneficiaries as they basked in the pleasure of being the only team in LaLiga to rain on Barcelona’s parade. The title may already have been won, but misguided arrangements driven clearly by reasons aside from football wiped history away from the clutches of Barcelona as they fell short at the penultimate hurdle.
Levante had been in fine form, having won seven of their previous nine outings, as they approached what would prove to be a memorable evening in Valencia. Paco López was appointed as the new first-team manager in March following the club’s dismal showings throughout the season, which saw them floundering towards the bottom of the table, just one point above the bottom three. Following the Granotas’ unexpected triumph over Spain’s dominant force, though, they would find themselves 17 points above the relegation zone, crowning a remarkable turnaround.
Although Valverde opted against having Messi at his disposal for the visit to Levante, the Spaniard’s line-up was star-studded, and the team entered the pitch to a guard of honour, a mark of appreciation that was absent in the previous week as Real Madrid refused to give their fiercest competitors the satisfaction of such etiquette.
However, such respect was reserved only for pre-match traditions as Levante mercilessly bombarded Barcelona’s goal, with López orchestrating an exhibition of attacking football from his side, inspiring the club to only their third ever win over the Catalan giants.
La Blaugrana would have expected to come through this fixture unscathed, even with Levante’s impressive run of form in mind. Barça had comprehensively beaten them 3–0 in the reverse fixture earlier in the season as they continued to cement their place at the top of the table. As they found themselves 5–1 down and shell-shocked before the clock had even struck the hour mark, and without the presence of the world’s greatest footballer to rescue them, their hopes of creating history were rapidly diminishing.
The early stages were controlled by the visitors, but Levante drew first blood. The diminutive José Luis Morales breezed past Yerry Mina and had little trouble bypassing Nélson Semedo before firing an inviting ball towards Emmanuel Boateng. The Ghanaian forward escaped both Thomas Vermaelen and Jordi Alba and was on hand to divert the cross off the woodwork and past Marc-André ter Stegen with his knee, opening the scoring.
Four minutes later, the hosts spurned a glorious chance to double their advantage. Roger Martí picked out Boateng with a well-weighted pass from the right, but the forward could only scuff the ball to the left. Waiting in the wings, though, was Enis Bardhi, who had the goal at his mercy. It looked for all the world as though the Macedonian playmaker would hammer past Ter Stegen, but his thunderous effort from just yards out cannoned off the post.
Barcelona attempted to capitalise on their let-off but their attacking talents were hardly firing on all cylinders. Just as Valverde’s men began to reclaim their foothold in proceedings, however, they found themselves two down. Saša Lukić drove through the middle, dancing past the half-hearted defensive efforts of Ousmane Dembélé and Iniesta before piercing the Barca back-line, weakened by the absence of Vermaelen, off the pitch and receiving treatment, to find Boateng. The striker calmly took the ball around Ter Stegen before shrugging off Semedo’s desperate attempts to thwart him as he thumped in his second of the evening.
The deficit was halved, thankfully for the champions, to ensure that the game did not escape them before the half-time whistle had even arrived. Suárez received a pass from Gerard Piqué, now on the pitch and marauding forward having replaced the injured Vermaelen, on the edge of the box before finding Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian came infield and drove a trademark effort from range into the back of the net, albeit via a slight deflection from Roberto Suárez Pier, which wrongfooted former Barça goalkeeper Oier Olazábal.
Semedo had an audacious drive from the right well saved before Suárez was unable to supply a header with any real direction. At the other end, Piqué appeared to handle Roger’s powerful effort on goal, but it was nigh-on impossible for the Spaniard to pull his arm away, thus no penalty was awarded. With the scoreline finely poised at 2–1 to Levante, few envisaged the enthralling encounter that would occur in the second half of such a momentous fixture for both clubs.
Barcelona were relieved to have seen Coutinho’s effort hit the back of the net, offering them the opportunity to claw their way back into the match. Less than a minute after the restart, though, Levante restored their two-goal lead. José Campaña burst down the right-hand side and split the champions’ back-line with deft movement and close control before finding Bardhi on the edge of the box. This time, the Macedonian made no mistake, as he curled a sumptuous strike beyond the reach of Ter Stegen to take the roof off the Estadi Ciutat de València.
With their tails up, the Granotas continued to probe and sensed an opportunity to compound Barcelona’s misery. Piqué stepped out of position to compete with Roger for a long ball halfway up the pitch and was left stranded as the Levante forward came out on top.
Mina, who had endured a disastrous first half, was left exposed by his defensive partner, and Antonio Luna had advanced from deep to thread an inch-perfect pass beyond the Colombian and into the path of Boateng, who gratefully slotted the ball past Ter Stegen without breaking stride. Having scored only three LaLiga goals in 2017/18 prior to the fixture, Boateng had doubled his tally with the first hat-trick of his professional career.
Then, if they hadn’t already, Levante found themselves in dreamland. Suárez was unable to score Barca’s second of the evening after a clever ball from Mina, while Morales came close to adding his side’s fifth as he struck the side netting. However, it didn’t take long for López to see his men score once again, courtesy of another majestic goal.
Roger played an incisive pass to disorganise the hapless Barcelona back-line to find Bardhi, who had advanced into the area. Sergio Busquets, seemingly taken aback by a pass of which even he would have been proud, misjudged the weight of the ball, and in a devastating fashion equal to his strike earlier on the night, Bardhi lashed home a first-time effort into the top corner to make it 5–1. The midfielder had surely eliminated the vestiges of hope that Barça had clung on to, with their invincibility rapidly losing its merits as the night grew on.
They did, however, refuse to give in. Coutinho scored his and Barcelona’s second of the night after he pounced on some defensive confusion, with Suárez Pier failing to clear his lines. The Brazilian slammed the ball past Oier, handing his men what seemed to be merely a consolation goal before the stadium rose to its feet to rejoice in applause and appreciation for Iniesta as he made way on the hour mark.
Levante didn’t grow too comfortable, but instead, rather frantic. As Barcelona piled on the pressure in the hopes of mounting an unlikely comeback, Coutinho joined Boateng in scoring a hat-trick. His well-struck effort from outside of the box again took a deflection as Oier was unable to deny his former employers their third of the night. Valverde watched on as his side chased another two goals to keep their unbeaten LaLiga record intact.
Fate then appeared to present Barcelona with a lifeline, with a spot-kick awarded to La Blaugrana as Busquets was clumsily hauled down by Boateng in the box. Suárez stepped up and confidently dispatched the penalty, reducing the deficit to just one goal as the scoreboard read a scarcely believable 5–4, planting more than just a seed of doubt into the minds of Levante’s supporters, who intently observed as their side attempted to protect a narrow lead that had been worth four goals only shortly before.
Barcelona pushed but their efforts proved to futile. Ivan Rakitić flashed a dangerous ball across the face of goal before Suárez had a golden chance to level things up, but despite finding himself unmarked just yards out, he headed over the bar. Denis Suárez saw a decent effort blocked by Jefferson Lerma, while Coutinho blazed over in the closing stages.
Still, there was one final chance for Levante, who had a genuine opportunity to hit six against a Barcelona side that boasted a defensive record bettered only by Atlético Madrid in LaLiga that season. Busquets played an uncharacteristically wayward pass back to Ter Stegen and picked out Rubén Rochina. The Spain international’s blushes were spared, however, as the Levante substitute was only able to poke the ball wide after the Barça goalkeeper raced from his net.
The missed chance would not come back to haunt the hosts, though, as raucous celebrations ensued upon the referee’s final whistle. Levante had stolen history from the clutches of Barcelona in the most dramatic of circumstances, with two hat-tricks, six bookings apiece, and a penalty contributing to one of LaLiga’s most iconic matches in recent times. The lowly Granotas had excelled to become the team that halted Barça, ending their 44-game unbeaten run and condemning Valverde to his first top-flight defeat as La Blaugrana’s manager.
Coutinho and Boateng, both unlikely hat-trick heroes on the day, exchanged shirts at the end of the match, and while Barcelona eased to a 1–0 win over Real Sociedad on the final day as they waved farewell to Iniesta, the rueful thoughts of what could have been remained prevalent.
Barcelona fell short of an invincible LaLiga campaign, and just as they began to pen their names in the history books, López and his Levante side snatched the pen away to ink their own fairytale.
By Luke Osman @lukeosman_