SUNDAY TIMES WEB DESK: Barcelona’s recent iron grip on the Copa del Rey came under threat as they lost 2-1 at Levante in their last-16 first leg tie on Thursday after resting a host of first team regulars, including Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.
Barca, who have won the last four editions of the Spanish Cup, fell behind in the fourth minute when slack marking from a free kick saw Erick Cabaco head home while Borja Mayoral, on loan from Real Madrid, doubled Levante’s lead in the 18th.
Substitute Jose Luis Morales spurned a glorious chance to strike a third goal for the home side which would have seriously damaged Barca’s hopes of staying in the competition.
But the Catalans were handed a huge boost heading into next Thursday’s second leg at the Nou Camp when Denis Suarez was fouled in the penalty area and record signing Philippe Coutinho converted the resulting spot-kick in the 85th minute.
Barca had mixed fortunes in their previous two visits to Levante, losing 5-4 there last season in their only La Liga defeat but avenging that loss this term with a thumping 5-0 win in December which included a hat-trick from Messi.
The Argentine was left out of the squad along with usual strike partner Suarez and Ivan Rakitic, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba, although regulars such as Ousmane Dembele, Arturo Vidal Sergio Busquets and Brazilian Coutinho all started the game.
Barca’s out-of-favour Brazilian forward Malcom missed two clear chances in the first half after Levante’s bright start, while French winger Ousmane Dembele dazzled the home defence in the second half but fell over just as he was shaping to shoot.
Barcelona’s Denis Suarez was one of three players thrown on by Ernesto Valverde and the midfielder, linked with a move away from the club this month, earned the penalty which Coutinho netted to boost the chances of turning the tie around next week.
Valverde said his team selection did not mean Barca were not as keen to win the Cup for a fifth straight season and indicated he would call on the likes of Messi and Suarez in the return.
“We’ll see what we do next week but we take the Cup very seriously. The fact it is played over two legs conditions which players play and which do not, but we want to win the tie and stay in the competition.”
Also on Thursday, Sevilla took a big step towards reaching the quarter-finals with a 3-1 win at Athletic Bilbao, while Real Betis draw 0-0 at home to Real Sociedad.