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Barcelona rests Lionel Messi, loses unbeaten season on wild night at Levante

Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets react during Barcelona’s wild match at Levante. (EFE)

Barcelona had immortality within reach. Just 180 short minutes away, the opportunity to make history at its fingertips. And on a stunning Sunday evening in Valencia, the unthinkable happened. The opportunity of a lifetime slipped away.

With Lionel Messi sitting at home, Barcelona lost its grip on what would have been the first 38-game unbeaten season in La Liga history. It conceded five goals for the first time since 2003. And it fell 5-4 – 5-4! – at 15th-place Levante in a match for the ages.

As an unforeseen Levante onslaught unfolded in the second half, manager Ernesto Valverde could only squeeze his eyes shut in agony. He and his players had bottled it. A strong mix of regular starters and reserves played for 60 minutes as if their minds were either on beaches or at the World Cup. A late comeback, from 5-1 to 5-4, came up just short.

It wasn’t the first time those players had underwhelmed on their quest for invincibility. But this time, there was no Messi to bail them out. And the decision to rest the greatest player ever will loom large in Spanish soccer lore. The circumstances of that decision will be questioned for a long time. And Barcelona may not have an acceptable answer.

On the surface, Messi’s absence had nothing to do with Barca’s letdown. Philippe Coutinho picked up the slack, scoring a hat trick and reigniting hope in the second half. But for much of the opening hour, the Catalans were in free fall. They were lost, like they never are with Messi. Messi changes the scope of any game he graces. He couldn’t change this one, because he wasn’t even in the traveling party – and perhaps because he will be required to play in a friendly in South Africa on Wednesday.

Huh?

Did Barcelona rest Messi so he can play in a friendly?

Barcelona announced this past week that it had scheduled a friendly against Mamelodi Sundowns in Johannesburg, South Africa on Wednesday to mark 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela. There’s likely quite a lot of money involved as well.

And as there often is with these kind of needless friendlies, there appears to be a stipulation in the contract that Barcelona will bring its stars. The South African club’s owner told a news conference on Thursday that Messi and Luis Suarez would be on the field. La Liga Africa director Antonio Barradas also reportedly confirmed that Barca’s “top players” would be present.

Valverde has not mentioned the friendly as a reason Messi was rested Sunday. But to force Messi to play three games in eight days, with the World Cup looming, would have been cruel. Valverde surely would have preferred to rest him on Wednesday. But it appears that might not have been an option. Which is absurd in so many ways. But in the business of modern soccer, it’s not unfathomable.

Barcelona went down 5-1 – 5-1!

Messi controversy aside, the game itself was wild. Barca didn’t just go behind for the 10th time this season; it went behind by four goals!

The visitors were caught out early by the pace and purpose of Levante’s attack. Jose Luis Morales drove to the byline, past backup center back Yerry Mina, and centered for Emmanuel Boateng to slam in the opener off the bar.


Levante struck the woodwork again minutes later from close range, and had the better chances in the first half. It got its second in the 30th minute, and its two-goal lead was anything but undeserved.


Philippe Coutinho had seemingly pulled Barcelona back into the game in the 38th minute with a deceiving shot from the top of the box.

But early in the second half, Barca collapsed. It conceded three goals in less than 11 minutes to go down 5-1:




Barcelona’s comeback

After Levante’s fifth, in the 56th minute, Coutinho led the Barca charge. He struck in the 59th minute:


And again in the 64th:


When the referee pointed to the penalty spot in the 70th minute, and when Suarez converted, the comeback appeared to be on. It had already reversed deficits nine times this season. Twenty minutes was surely enough time, it seemed, for a 10th comeback. And a fifth goal was all the Catalans would have needed to keep their run at the record books alive.

But they could not find that fifth, no matter how furiously they pressed. No matter how many men they sent forward. On the season’s penultimate weekend, Barcelona finally fell. At the 37th time of asking, La Liga made the champions mortal.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.