Verdict: Total goals under 3.5
Best odds: 8/13
Barcelona are set to welcome Levante to the Camp Nou on Sunday afternoon in the seventh round of the La Liga season, though it will actually be match number six for the Catalan club.
Given where this great club was only a few years ago, it’s hard to believe what is happening to them these days.
A new era has begun at the Camp Nou this summer. The club suffered greatly from years of dubious transfer decisions, which saw them spend vast amounts on players that never justified such outlays. Most notably, the arrivals of Ousmane Dembele in the summer of 2017, Philippe Coutinho in January 2018 for €160m, and Antoine Griezmann in 2019, cost them over €300 million combined. Dembele has been severely hampered by injuries, Coutinho has never really fitted in, and Griezmann has just returned to Atletico Madrid, likely with a feeling that he left a sinking ship in the nick of time.
And to top it all, there is no more the brilliance, the marketing value or the transfer pull of Lionel Messi to ease their problems anymore. The Argentinian superstar had agreed to recommit under reduced terms, but the financial issues of the club, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and coupled with La Liga’s salary cap regulations, made it impossible. He now belongs to Paris Saint-Germain.
Without their iconic talisman, it’s not to be wondered at that Barcelona are not the team they were before. They beat Real Sociedad at home by 4-2 on the opening day of the league campaign, then drew 1-1 away to Athletic Bilbao, beat Getafe at home by 2-1, drew 1-1 at home against Granada, and eventually played a goalless draw away to Cadiz on Thursday as midfielder Frenkie de Jong and head coach Ronald Koeman both received red cards. The only positive they could possibly hold onto at this point is the fact that they haven’t yet tasted defeat.
But the game that probably reflected the club’s fall from grace the most was the Champions League opener at home against Bayern Munich. The Bavarians waltzed to a 0-3 victory, looking just as comfortable as when they won by the same scoreline in the semifinal back in 2013 and went on to lift the trophy.
Many have already written Barcelona off from the La Liga title race, and if things don’t improve significantly, they could soon lose all realistic hope of getting back into it at all. As things stand, they are in seventh place, seven points behind arch-rivals Real Madrid at the top, and even Champions League qualification could prove a challenge. Naturally, there is a long way to go yet, but it’s really hard to see the Blaugrana recovering in time to salvage the season. What’s more, Koeman seems to be held in the job only by the club’s inability to pay off his contract in case they sack him – an incredibly pitiful state of affairs.
Given what happened against Cadiz, Koeman won’t be able to command his forces from the dugout in this match, nor to select De Jong in midfield. Forwards Dembele, Sergio Aguero and Martin Braithwaite, left-back Jordi Alba, and midfielder Pedri have all been ruled out through various injury problems.
However, Barcelona’s hopes could be boosted by the potential return of Ansu Fati. The forward who turns 19 at the end of next month has been out of action for 10 months through a severe knee injury, but if he makes it through the training session on Saturday morning, he could make the squad on Sunday.
As for the starting lineup, Coutinho is likely to join Memphis Depay and Luuk de Jong in attack, with Sergi Roberto slotting into midfield.
Levante are a part of the cluster of teams in the Spanish top flight that are always happy to avoid relegation and look for little more than that. Last term they finished 14th, seven points above the zone of the doomed – a fine result which ensured their place in the top flight for the fifth season running.
Paco Lopez’s team are winless so far, with their record consisting of four draws and two defeats, though their performances haven’t been too bad overall. They drew 1-1 away to Cadiz, 3-3 at home against leaders Real Madrid, lost 1-0 away to Real Sociedad, drew 1-1 at home against Rayo Vallecano as well as away to Elche, and finally lost 0-2 at home against Celta Vigo as Iago Aspas and Brais Mendez struck a goal each.
The four points won have Levante in 16th place right now, with Celta in 17th on the same tally. Granada are 18th with three points, while 19th-place Getafe and bottom side Alaves are yet to get off the mark this term.
Lopez has a number of players missing at the moment. Striker Robero Soldado, attacking midfielder Enis Bardhi and midfielder Jose Campana have been ruled out through injury, while midfielder Mickael Malsa is a huge doubt.
Captain Jose Luis Morales is likely to pair up with Roger Marti in attack. Winger Jorge de Frutos will be hoping for a start at the Camp Nou too, having come on from the bench against Celta.
It may feel strange, but Barcelona’s credentials to be named the favourites to win the match are questionable. It still feels more likely to happen than not, but the team that has already snatched a point from Real Madrid will believe they can at least repeat the feat against the troubled Catalans, even if it is at the Camp Nou.
Be that as it may, there shouldn’t be too many goals.
Verdict: Total goals under 3.5
Best odds: 8/13
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