Defending champions Barcelona on Saturday came from behind to level the score against Valencia after a brace by Lionel Messi in the La Liga (Spain’s top-flight football league).

First-placed Barca came out sluggish at Camp Nou here just four days before the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final showdown against Real Madrid, with goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen forced to save a close-range shot by Dani Parejo and then Denis Cheryshev firing the rebound off the far post on Saturday, reports Efe news.

The hosts recovered quickly from those rocky opening minutes though, as they proceeded to dominate ball possession and create scoring chances of their own.

Messi was just off the mark on a free kick, while Valencia net minder Neto needed to come up with two outstanding saves to deny shots by Philippe Coutinho and Sergi Roberto.

But Valencia waited patiently for chances on the counter-attack and struck the first blow of the game in the 24th minute.

On the play, Parejo stole the ball from Messi deep in Valencia’s half of the field, Rodrigo led the charge down the field and Kevin Gameiro provided the finishing touch with a shot past a helpless ter Stegen.

Barcelona nearly scored just two minutes later when a cross by Coutinho nearly deflected off of defender Ezequiel Garay and into his own goal, although Neto reacted in time to preserve his team’s lead.

Things then got more complicated for the hosts after the referee awarded Valencia a questionable penalty on a play in which Sergi Roberto knocked Daniel Wass to the ground in the area.

Moments later, Parejo scored from the 12-yard mark to make the score 2-0.

The crowd was stunned, although Barca began their comeback just seven minutes later when Messi scored from the penalty spot after Nelson Semedo was fouled in the area; the hosts then nearly got the equaliser on a shot by Sergi Roberto that ricocheted off the near post.

Jordi Alba was inserted for Semedo after the break, and the penetration he provided down the left side changed the complexion of the match.

Barcelona’s assault on Valencia’s goal came in waves, although Neto managed to preserve his team’s lead for a while longer by saving shots by Messi and Carles Alena.

At the other end of the field, Valencia sought to widen their lead back to two with counter-attacks but could get nothing else past ter Stegen, who denied Rodrigo in a one-on-one opportunity at the 61-minute mark.

The Spanish forward also missed out a golden opportunity in the 63rd minute when he received a cross from Cheryshev but sent his close-range shot into the stands.

The visitors’ failure to secure an insurance goal proved costly one minute later when Messi received the ball just outside the penalty box and fired a left-footed shot inside the near post past Neto for the game’s final score.

The story of the final stage of the match was an apparent right-thigh injury suffered by Messi, who received treatment on the field for more than three minutes but stayed in the game.

Afterward, Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde acknowledged that his team may have lacked a sense of urgency on Saturday but said that was understandable.

“It’s tough to be equally psyched up for every game,” he said, adding that Barcelona is “fixated on trying to win all the matches, especially in La Liga”.

With the draw, Barca (50 points) provisionally have a six-point lead over second-placed Atletico Madrid, who take on Real Betis on Sunday.

Valencia are in seventh place in La Liga with 30 points.

(With IANS Inputs)