Barcelona’s dream of an unbeaten season has been dashed after suffering a wild 5-4 defeat to Levante on Sunday night at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia.
Simply put; it was one of the most memorable LaLiga matches in recent seasons, marked by Levante taking a 5-1 lead in the second-half before a furious Barcelona comeback that fell just a goal short, snapping their unbeaten run at 43 league matches.
There were tremendous performances all around, especially from the hosts, who got a hat-trick from Emmanuel Boateng and a brace from Enis Bradhi.
On the other side, Philippe Coutinho kickstarted Barcelona’s late charge and scored a hat-trick of his own.
But what ultimately led to Barcelona’s first league defeat of the season was their defence, which was gutted by the Levante attack through the first hour and prevented the Catalonians a chance of making history.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde rolled out a heavily rotated squad, with Lionel Messi enjoying a day off. But what caught the eye was the pairing at centre-back of little used defenders Yerry Mina and Thomas Vermaelen.
It didn’t take long for Levante to make Barcelona fans start squirming as Boateng opened the scoring before 10 minutes had elapsed.
Jose Luis Morales powered past Mina and crossed for Boateng, who managed to redirect the ball over the line for a 1-0 lead.
Boateng was at it again moments later, this time playing the role of provider, slicing through two Barcelona defenders and laying a ball for Bardhi, who slammed a shot off the crossbar, sparing Barcelona a two-goal deficit.
So often injured in his Barcelona career, Vermaelen once again experienced bad luck when he pulled up with a hamstring injury midway through the half.
The Belgian left the pitch, reducing Barcelona temporarily to 10 men while Gerard Pique waited to enter, and Levante took full advantage as Sasa Lukic filtered in a pass to Boateng, who rounded goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen before bouncing off Semedo and stroking home from a yard out for a stunning 2-0 advantage.
After sleep-walking through the first 30-35 minutes, Barcelona finally woke up for a spell, thanks to the energy brought by Pique.
Their pace and intensity increased substantially and it was game on when Coutinho ripped a right-footed shot that took a slight deflection off Rober Pier and past Oier to cut the deficit to 2-1.
Levante didn’t just park the bus to try to hang on for the win; Paco Lopez’s men still looked to get forward and they had a shout for a penalty when a Bardhi shot struck the hand of Pique, but there was no whistle from referee Melero Lopez.
But no hand or arm or body could have stopped Bardhi’s strike in the opening seconds of the second-half to give Levante a two-goal edge again.
A Jordi Alba giveaway led to a Levante attack and Roger fed Bardhi with a perfect pass for the latter to latch onto and fire in past Ter Stegen.
The amazing turned to the surreal minutes later, as Boateng completed his hat-trick to make it 4-1 to the home side.
Once again, the Barcelona defence was just a step too slow and could not handle Levante’s pace and power. The beleaguered Mina kept Boateng onside and the Ghanaian finished with aplomb after collecting a pass from Antonio Luna.
Levante smelled blood and Bardhi feasted on another Barcelona defensive lapse to make it 5-1, sending the home fans into absolute ecstasy.
Barcelona were staring at very long odds to try to salvage their unbeaten season; their frustration was evident and their body language was poor, but they kept plugging away and some hope was restored when Coutinho pounced on a loose ball in the area and fired home to reduce the Levante advantage to 5-2.
Seeking a spark, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer replaced Andres Iniesta and Ousmane Dembele, respectively, and suddenly it was just a two-goal game when Sergio Busquets found Coutinho at the top of the area and the Brazilian rifled home to complete a hat-trick of his own and make it a 5-3 affair.
With more than 25 minutes still remaining, Barcelona’s belief in a comeback grew and suddenly the Ciutat de Valencia had the air of a cemetery when Busquets was brought down by Campana in the Levante area and Luis Suarez calmly converted the spot kick, drawing the visitors to within one, 5-4.
Barcelona threw the kitchen sink at Levante in hopes of an equaliser.
Luis Suarez and Coutinho each came achingly close to finding the fifth, plus a near Levante own goal. The final minutes were frantic, but in the end, Levante hung on to snatch away Barcelona’s hope of history.
5.- Levante: Oier; Coke, Postigo, Rober Pier, Luna; Lukic, Campana, Roger (Lerma, min. 69), Boateng (Pazzini, min. 77), Bardhi, Morales (Rochina, min. 85)
4.- Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Semedo, Yerry Mina, Vermaelen (Pique, min. 32), Jordi Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Dembele (Alcacer, min. 60), Iniesta (Denis Suarez, min. 60); Coutinho, Suarez
Goals: 1-0, min. 9: Boateng; 2-0, min. 31: Boateng; 2-1, min. 39: Coutinho; 3-1, min. 46: Bardhi; 4-1, min. 50: Boateng; 5-1, min. 56: Bardhi; 5-2, min. 58: Coutinho; 5-3, min. 64: Coutinho; 5-4, min. 71: Suarez (p)
Referee: Melero Lopez (Andalusian). Yellow Cards: Vermaelen (Min. 20) for Barcelona, Bardhi (Min. 22) for Levante, Boateng (Min. 38) for Levante, Koke (Min. 62) for Levante, Busquets (Min. 65) for Barcelona, Campana (Min. 70) for Levante, Lerma (Min. 88) for Levante, Luis Suarez (Min. 88) for Barcelona, Pazzini (Min. 92) for Levante, Pique (Min. 93) for Barcelona, Yerry Mina (Min. 94) for Barcelona
Red cards: None
Stadium: Ciutat de Valencia