Barcelona 1-0 Levante: Cesc nets winner but Catalans stutter without Messi

The midfielder's strike late in the second half decided the game in favour of the Blaugrana, but with a faltering attack, Tito Vilanova has plenty to ponder ahead of Bayern Munich
A below-par Barcelona left it late to clinch a 1-0 victory over Levante at Camp Nou in la Liga on Saturday.

Sevilla were the last team to hold the Catalans scoreless at home in November 2011, and Levante were six minutes away from repeating the feat after frustrating the Blaugrana for long spells with a dogged defensive display.

But Cesc Fabregas would pop up with the all-important goal towards the end to clinch all three points for Barca, though their stuttering performance was far from what Tito Vilanova would have wanted with the visit of Bayern Munich to come midweek.

Lionel Messi was excluded from the match day squad altogether to speed his return to full fitness, but the Catalans were boosted by the return of Eric Abidal to the starting line-up for the first time in 14 months.

Plenty of possession but paltry penetration was the story of the game for Barca in the opening exchanges, but with 17 minutes gone, they were contentiously handed a chance to take the lead after Pape Diop was penalised, harshly, for a foul on Andres Iniesta in the box.

But justice would be done for the visitors, when Keylor Navas guessed correctly to push away David Villa’s sub-par attempt from the penalty spot.

Barca continued to find clear-cut chances hard to come by despite completely monopolising the ball, and it took a stunning 35-yard drive from Dani Alves to force Navas into his next meaningful action of the match.

Navas would thwart Villa for the second time just before the end of the half, as Levante’s ability to frustrate the Catalans into the interval meant their task was half done.

And that pattern continued into the second half as Barca’s struggles continued. Robert Acquafresca even had the ball in the back of the net, though his effort was correctly chalked off for offside.

Camp Nou was growing restless as the home side’s tiki-taka football failed to prise open any cracks in the opposition defence, and Pedro and Xavi both emerged off the bench for the latter stages in place of Thiago and Iniesta.

But the changes did little to freshen up Barca’s ranks as Vilanova would have hoped, as their schemes and plots in front of the Levante box continued to yield no reward.

With nine minutes remaining, hope was restored for one brief second when Alves’ cross was played into the path of Villa 10 yards out, but true to his form throughout the game, the striker blazed over the bar.

But in the 84th minute, the breakthrough would arrive at last. Alexis Sanchez slid to Fabregas just inside the area, and the former Arsenal man picked his spot in the bottom corner expertly to finally break Levante for good.