Barcelona could not overcome the absence of Lionel Messi and other regular starters on Thursday, losing 2-1 at Levante in the first leg of the Copa del Rey’s round of 16.

Barcelona’s second-stringers struggled from the start in Valencia, escaping an even greater defeat only because Levante’s forwards squandered some clear scoring chances.

The return game is next Thursday at Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, when the four-time defending champion is expected to have some of its starters back in action.

Levante took the lead early with a close-range header by Uruguayan defender Erick Cabaco in the third minute, and striker Borja Mayoral scored the second goal with a low cross shot in the 18th.

The hosts kept threatening throughout the match, taking advantage of a Barcelona defense that was without Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba. Newly signed Colombian player Jeison Murillo was making his club debut in central defense.

Without Messi and Luis Suarez in attack, the Catalan club had difficulties creating scoring opportunities. The trio of Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom was largely ineffective, and the team’s lone goal came late with penalty kick converted by Philippe Coutinho in the 85th.

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Levante defender Erick Cabaco, second right, celebrates after scoring against Barcelona during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Levante defender Erick Cabaco, second right, celebrates after scoring against Barcelona during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez, left, blocks a shot from Barcelona forward Malcom, center, during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Levante goalkeeper Aitor Fernandez, left, blocks a shot from Barcelona forward Malcom, center, during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Malcom reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Malcom reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday, Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele reacts after failing to score against Levante during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday, Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele, right, duels for the ball with Levante midfielder Prcic during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)
Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele, right, duels for the ball with Levante midfielder Prcic during the la Copa del Rey round of 16 first leg soccer match between Levante and Barcelona at the Ciutat de Valencia stadium in Valencia, Spain, Thursday Jan. (AP Photo/Alberto Saiz)

Source: The Associated Press