Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez light up Levante in return from winter break
It wasn't Barcelona's brightest display of the season but goals from Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Paulinho ensured they started as they left off in La Liga, with a 3-0 win over visitors Levante. The win maintained their nine-point lead on Atletico Madrid at the top of the table and kept the Catalan side unbeaten on the season.
Levante put out a weakened side due to suspensions and a lingering suspicion they wouldn't take anything home from Camp Nou in any case, and Barcelona took advantage with what has become a classic performance under Ernesto Valverde, digging in to record another win and another clean sheet.
Another victory, another step towards the title, another clean sheet at the back for the most defensively stable Barcelona team we have seen in years.
Ousmane Dembele also made his first start after his hamstring injury in September, making the next step forward in his recovery process, which is good news as the Catalans have lacked a little spark up front since Neymar's departure in the summer.
The only real criticism of Valverde's Barcelona is that they are not as entertaining as Pep Guardiola or Luis Enrique's side. That was the case again here, bar Messi's contributions which are invariably magical.
Manager rating out of 10
7 -- Valverde utilised a new formation to make space for Dembele, opting for the 4-2-3-1 he favoured at Athletic Bilbao, although Messi drifting between the lines meant it was more flexible. Barcelona took control of the game early on and after scoring in the 12th minute never looked like giving up the lead.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 8 -- The German is having the best season of his career and made two sensational saves to earn Barcelona another clean sheet. The first was from Ivi shortly after the break, tipping the ball over the bar, before later denying American Shaquell Moore from close range.
DF Sergi Roberto, 8 -- The Catalan midfielder would love to play in his natural position more often but to do that he needs to stop giving Valverde reason to put him in the side at right-back. Roberto's superb volleyed cross led to the second goal, and it was the fifth assist he has provided for Luis Suarez this season.
DF Javier Mascherano, 7 -- The defender is close to a move to Chinese Super League side Hebei China Fortune, and if this proves to be his farewell it was fitting, as he put in a hard-working and defensively solid performance. Reliable until the end.
DF Thomas Vermaelen, 8 -- The Belgian has been one of the pleasant surprises of Barcelona's season since he stepped into the side to cover for the injured Samuel Umtiti. Has been nothing but reliable at the back and, touching wood, it appears his injury problems are now behind him. An important tackle in the first half to slow down a Levante break and a crucial one towards the end to stop Nano breaking in on goal.
DF Jordi Alba, 8 -- The left-back has forged a special connection with Messi this season and teed him up with a headed assist to break the deadlock in the 12th minute. Alba has been a vital component for Barcelona this season, thriving in the ocean of space on the left without Neymar ahead of him.
MF Ivan Rakitic, 6 -- The Croatian midfielder played in Sergio Busquets' role and did a good job of it for the most part, although a late mistake nearly let Nano in. Was inches away from scoring one of the best goals of his career in the first half, whistling a low effort narrowly wide.
MF Paulinho, 6 -- Got another goal at the end by tapping home after some wonderful work on the left by Messi, his seventh strike of the campaign, making him the top scoring midfielder in La Liga. Overall, however, this was a quiet display from the Brazilian. Playing deeper than usual thanks to Valverde's formation, he worked hard defensively but didn't get into the area as frequently as in the first half of the season.
MF Ousmane Dembele 6 -- As Valverde's assistant Jon Aspiazu pointed out before the game, Dembele was playing in midfield rather than as part of a new attacking trident alongside Suarez and Messi. The Frenchman had an early shot blocked and then saw Oier Olazabal beat away another effort. His passing and interplay was good, even if he had little overall impact on his first start since injury.
MF Lionel Messi 8 -- The Barcelona playmaker made his 400th league appearance and marked it with a volley to open the scoring which left Olazabal with no chance. Levante defenders used his shins as target practice all game but Messi still thrived and teed up his teammates at every opportunity until eventually, Paulinho took advantage.
MF Andres Iniesta, 6 -- The Barcelona captain was reliable on the ball but took his time bedding in to a new position out on the left. With Philippe Coutinho arriving, the veteran will probably get less time on the pitch in the months ahead than he has grown used to under Valverde. The Brazilian seems made for this role too.
FW Luis Suarez, 7 -- Struck his eighth goal in seven league games with a fearsome strike that delighted Camp Nou. Suarez is out of a slump which saw him net just three goals in his first 14 games of the season and Barcelona are more deadly for it. The Uruguayan was the spearhead that allowed the attacking midfielders behind him to move more freely.
DF Nelson Semedo 6 -- His arrival in the 67th minute for Dembele saw Sergi Roberto move into midfield while the Portuguese played in his usual right-back spot. Made little impact on a game which was already won.
MF Andre Gomes, NR -- Replaced Andres Iniesta in the 76th minute and did well down the left despite having limited time to show off.
MF Jose Arnaiz, NR -- The young forward was given a league debut in the final few minutes but barely touched the ball.
Richard Martin covers FC Barcelona for ESPN FC. Twitter: @rich9908.