FC Barcelona ended a three-game UEFA Champions League sequence without a victory by inflicting a fifth successive defeat on PFC Levski Sofia to enhance their chances of qualifying for the knockout rounds.
To do that the holders will have to beat Werder Bremen, 1-0 winners against Chelsea FC tonight, at home in their final Group A fixture on Matchday 6. A loss or even a draw here would have made the Spanish club the first defending champions to fail to progress through a group stage in the UEFA Champions League era, but an early strike from Ludovic Giuly and a second-half goal from Andrés Iniesta made sure there would be no shock in Sofia.
Levski's home ground enjoyed a period when it regularly sounded the death knell for the aspirations of the European Champion Clubs' Cup holders. Both AFC Ajax (1973/74) and Liverpool FC (1981/82) lost their crowns here while Nottingham Forest FC (1980/81) suffered a 1-0 reverse in their first-round first leg before losing the return in England by a similar scoreline. If history suggested another surprise result, Barcelona were determined to pay no heed. An early breakthrough was their aim and it arrived as swiftly as the fifth minute, though seconds before the holders had to survive a scare in their own goalmouth when Hristo Yovov beat Gianluca Zambrotta only to elect to shoot from a difficult angle, his effort clipping the outside of the near post.
Undeterred, Zambrotta advanced down the right and while Eidur Gudjohnsen could not connect properly with the cross, the ball fell kindly for Giuly to open the scoring with a controlled drive. At Camp Nou, Levski had held out for two minutes more before falling behind, and it would have been easy for their heads to drop but having seen Ronaldinho loop a free-kick too high, they gathered their spirit and resources and proceeded to push Barça back. The Bulgarian champions engineered a number of promising situations but lacked the composure and good fortune to take advantage. Stanislav Angelov was unlucky to see a fierce drive blocked and the same player was then only just beaten to the ball by goalkeeper Víctor Valdés following Cédric Bardon's clever back-heel.
Barcelona had two great opportunities to put the issue beyond doubt at the start of the second half. In each case Gudjohnsen was the man scenting glory, but after first slashing at his shot he was then denied by the legs of Georgi Petkov, the goalkeeper also blocking Giuly's follow-up in the same way. It enabled Levski to believe they could still get a significant result from their night's work. They remained true to their adventurous instincts and it required a last-ditch tackle from Rafael Márquez to prevent Valeri Domovchiyski latching on to a loose ball inside the penalty area.
Then, in the 65th minute, Barça were finally able to relax. Deco finished a smart break with a rasping shot that Petkov failed to hold and Iniesta popped up to give the holders breathing space and set up a decisive final fixture in a fortnight's time. Levski, meanwhile, are guaranteed to end their first group-stage campaign in fourth position ahead of their concluding tie at Chelsea.