BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Without Lionel Messi to save the day, Barcelona bid farewell to its quest to make history in Spain.
Barcelona lost 5-4 in a wild game at Levante on Sunday, ruining the champion’s chance to become the first team to finish a Spanish league season without a defeat under its current format.
Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde left Messi— the competition’s leading scorer with 34 goals— out of his squad to rest ahead of a demanding summer for the Argentina forward at the World Cup.
The real trouble for Barcelona, however, came in defense.
Led by Emmanuel Boateng’s hat trick and two more goals from Enis Bardhi, Levante was heading toward a historic rout of the recently crowned champions when the hosts built a 5-1 advantage after 56 minutes.
But Barcelona roared back, with Philippe Coutinho adding two more goals to his first-half strike to complete a hat trick before Luis Suarez converted a penalty to cut the deficit to 5-4 in the 71st.
Suarez headed high from close range in Barcelona’s last chance to snatch the draw.
“I am angry,” said Valverde. “We responded well to their opening goals, but the game was decided in the first 10 minutes after halftime when they struck three times on counterattacks.”
Barcelona’s upset against a modest Levante side — fighting to stay out of the relegation zone most of the season — came with just one round left after this match.
Two teams pulled off the feat in the 1930s when the competition only had 10 teams compared to 20 now.
Barcelona’s Liga record for undefeated games ended at 43 straight — its previous loss was last season at Malaga in April 2017. For the 2017-18 league season, Barcelona has 27 league wins, nine draws and one defeat.
Paco Lopez, the coach who has led Levante’s turnaround of winning 25 of a possible 30 points since he took over in March, said that beating Barcelona proved “nothing is impossible.”
“To score five goals against Barcelona is almost impossible, but our motto all week has been ‘nothing is impossible’ and we have achieved something historic,” Lopez said. “The explanation is the same as that of our play over the last 2 1/2 months: work, trust in one another and the belief that this team has no limits.”
Valverde will be questioned — and not only for leaving Messi off his squad.
The manager could also be criticized for starting back-up Thomas Vermaelen and little-used Yerry Mina as his central defenders with Samuel Umtiti injured.
But even when Gerard Pique went on for the injured Vermaelen in the 31st with Barcelona trailing 2-0, the team’s defensive troubles continued.
Boateng struck his first two goals in half an hour and Levante never trailed the rest of the way.
Coutinho pulled one back with a long strike that took a deflection off a defender in the 38th, but Boateng struck again while Bardhi got his two goals to build what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
Coutinho put in a rebound from close range and struck again with a shot that hit another player to fool goalkeeper Oier Olazabal. Suarez then had the spot kick after Boateng fouled Sergio Busquets while defending a corner kick.
But that was as close as Barcelona got without Messi around to pull off some late magic.
“Of course we wanted to finish the season unbeaten, but this doesn’t take away from all we have achieved this season,” Busquets said. “It’s a shame. We won the title and had an incredible league campaign, except for this match.”
Barcelona also won the Copa del Rey to make it a domestic double this campaign.
Elsewhere, Espanyol routed relegated Malaga 4-1.