Barcelona got their priorities all wrong. Away to an in-form Levante side that had won five of their last six games in La Liga to move well clear of the relegation zone, Ernesto Valverde decided to rotate. And this time, there was no Lionel Messi to rescue his team.
When Barca were down 2-0 to Sevilla in the Primera Division a few weeks ago, Messi emerged from the bench to salvage a point for the Blaugrana at the Sanchez Pizjuan and, more importantly, preserve their unbeaten record in the league.
After the recent 2-2 draws against Celta Vigo and Real Madrid, it seemed as if Barca had overcome the two most significant obstacles standing between them and an invincible season in La Liga.
A 5-1 victory at home to Villarreal followed in a rearranged game in midweek, leaving just two matches: a trip to Levante on Sunday and a meeting with Real Sociedad at Camp Nou next weekend.
And in the pre-match press conference, Valverde hinted at possible changes at the Ciutat de Valencia. “I’m clear that there are players who have to link up with their national teams as soon as the season finishes,” he said.
And when the matchday squad was announced, Messi was not on the list. The Argentine attacker is one of those players who will be joining up with his national side at season’s end in preparation for the World Cup, but there is more to it than that.
Because Barcelona have agreed a friendly in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns on Wednesday and contractually, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will be obliged to play some part.
Valverde said on Saturday that he would field two teams in the friendly fixture. “We will treat it like a training session,” he said. “Two teams will play and we will try to do things as well as we can.”
Whatever the decision to leave out Messi altogether was about, Barcelona did not do very well without him in Valencia and the champions found themselves 5-1 down to Levante in a game they ultimately lost 5-4.
Two goals from Emmanuel Boateng exposed a makeshift central defence featuring Thomas Vermaelen and Yerry Mina, and although Philippe Coutinho pulled one back with a super strike, the home side took the lead again early in the second half as Enis Bardhi fired in from distance.
Boateng and Bardhi then each scored again before Barca (with Gerard Pique on for the injured Vermaelen) mounted a comeback, with Coutinho completing his hat-trick and Luis Suarez scoring from the penalty spot to set up a frenzied finale.
But it was not enough for Barcelona in the end. With no Messi, there is no unbeaten Liga season either and despite their domestic double, some of the shine has been lost from the Catalans’ season now.
To think that it all could have been avoided by not accepting a money-making friendly in South Africa will leave a sour taste for fans of Barca, who will now have to endure watching fierce rivals Real Madrid fight it out for third straight Champions League crown at the end of this month.
Win the final against Liverpool in Kiev and Real’s feat will be historic. Barca’s campaign in La Liga, however, will not be, as a huge opportunity was missed in inexplicable circumstances on Sunday.