Barcelona looked to have more than one eye on an imminent Champions League test against Bayern Munich when eking out a 1-0 home win over Levante in La Liga.
The Catalans travel to Germany for the first leg of their daunting semi-final on Tuesday and their performance at Camp Nou was unfocused and lethargic, with David Villa having a poor penalty saved in the first half.
But Cesc Fabregas eventually collected a square pass from Alexis Sanchez after 84 minutes and converted a fine shot into the bottom corner to give Barcelona the victory nonetheless.
The result gives Barca a 13-point cushion over Real Madrid once again after their great rivals won 3-1 against Real Betis earlier in the evening, and with La Liga all but conquered, the main focus is now clearly their European endeavours.
Lionel Messi, nursing a thigh complaint, was not risked ahead of the crucial trip to Munich, but Eric Abidal was named in the starting XI for the first time in a Liga game since February 2012.
The France defender underwent a liver transplant last April and the dedication he has shown during his lengthy recuperation was recognised by the Camp Nou crowd, who generously applauded his every touch of the ball - the majority of which were typically assured.
After a somewhat tentative start by Barca, the game sprung to live after 13 minutes as Andres Iniesta looked highly fortunate to win a penalty when going to ground under minimal contact from Pape Diop. Villa stepped up from 12 yards but his poor effort was saved by Keylor Navas, who also denied Fabregas from the follow-up.
Almost immediately, Levante surged up the pitch and Ruben Garcia drove a firm effort just over the bar from the edge of the box after losing his marker with a clever shimmy.
However, that brief flicker of a threat merely signalled the start of a long period of Barca domination. Andres Iniesta began to take charge in the final third, teeing up Cristian Tello with one gorgeous pass into the left channel before the forward's low cross was cleared by David Navarro. Dani Alves then went close with a thumping free-kick from 35 yards which was touched wide of the post.
Thiago, standing in for Xavi, then began to influence proceedings with his precise passing and clever movement. One chipped ball over the defence found Tello, who fired into the side-netting, before a chested pass allowed Villa to strike a firm volley into the turf and up into the face of Juanfran, who deflected the ball behind.
Diop - who had been harshly penalised earlier - was then lucky to avoid conceding a second penalty when he controlled a headed pass from a team-mate with his right arm, in full view of the referee. Nothing was given and Barca went in level at the break.
The Catalans threaded together some intricate passing moves but without Messi lacked incision in the final third and struggled to create chances in a rather laborious second half. Xavi was introduced for Iniesta while Pedro replaced Thiago, but still Barca struggled to convert possession into genuine chances.
However, the subsequent introduction of Sanchez did make the required difference. After teeing up Villa for a half-volley that flew over the bar from 15 yards, Sanchez then supplied Fabregas, and the Spain international took a touch before stroking the ball into the bottom corner for Barca's 99th league goal of the season.
- Sports & Recreation
- David Villa
- Cesc Fabregas
- La Liga
- Bayern Munich