Madrid (AFP) – Lionel Messi marked his 400th appearance in La Liga with the opening goal as Barcelona eased to a 3-0 win over struggling Levante at the Camp Nou on Sunday.
Messi’s 365th goal in Spain’s top flight came inside 12 minutes, with Luis Suarez adding the second before the interval and Paulinho completing the victory late on as Barcelona stretched their lead at the top of the table back to nine points over Atletico Madrid.
The Catalans are still unbeaten in La Liga this season and have Philippe Coutinho to come in, with the Brazilian expected to be officially unveiled as a Barcelona player on Monday following the announcement of his 160 million-euro ($192 million) move from Liverpool.
With all the talk ahead of this game on Coutinho, coach Ernesto Valverde was eager for his side to keep their focus on winning their first league outing since beating Real Madrid 3-0 in the Clasico on December 23.
“Levante had not lost away since September. We were very good in the first half, but the rhythm was not the same in the second half,” said Valverde.
Coutinho, whose transfer is the third-biggest in football history, was not in attendance at the Camp Nou as the club’s previous record recruit Ousmane Dembele started.
The Frenchman, signed for 105 million euros from Borussia Dortmund at the start of the campaign, was included in the line-up here for the first time since tearing his hamstring nearly four months ago.
He came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, including from one 20-yard strike that was beaten away by Levante goalkeeper Oier Olazabal.
“I think he has to bring something to the team, and he also has to face up to the competition for places and for the tackles he will face on the pitch, from opponents who don’t want to let him past,” said Valverde, who took Dembele off midway through the second half.
“It is a process, but I thought he looked good and we still hope he can improve.”
It was Messi who broke the deadlock from a Jordi Alba assist, a combination that has proved fruitful on so many occasions this season.
The Argentine’s flighted pass found Alba, and the left-back headed the ball down for Messi, arriving in the area, to finish first-time in off the far post for his 16th league goal of the campaign.