There were 82,743 people there but Leo Messi was alone. Players were sprinting and shouting. The linesman, surrounded, protested that he had no idea what had happened, so they told him. But the referee already knew. Andrés Iniesta had gone down and he'd given a penalty. Eventually the ball was placed on the spot, so Frédéric Kanouté nudged it off again. But the spot was no longer the spot, attention drawn elsewhere. There was pushing and shoving, something said. A red card. Kanouté was at Cesc Fábregas's throat and then Fábregas was on the floor. The baying crowd grew bigger, so did the tension. Víctor Valdés raced from the goal-line; Kanouté walked to the touchline. And all the while Messi stood silently, just the ball and his thoughts for company.

The ball, his thoughts and a figure in yellow, No13 on the back. Behind Messi, it was all kicking off, the newspaper Marca describing the Camp Nou turf as a "lawless city" … "the pitch turned into a lunatic asylum." In front of him, 12 yards away, stood Javier Varas Herrera. It was the Saturday-night game in Spain but by the time Messi finally began his run, it was almost the Sunday-morning game. Nil-nil at the Camp Nou and Barça's league leadership was slipping away. Madrid had just hammered Málaga 4-0 and Barça were about to drop points at home for the first time. Twenty-one shots meant nothing, the siege proved pointless. Now, though, the drawbridge had been lowered: Barça had been handed a lifeline. Sevilla's unbeaten record, one of only three in the league after eight games, was about to come to an end.

Or was it?

The clock said 90.00 + 00.49 when Iniesta was brought down. When Messi finally took the penalty, it said 90.00 + 04.49. Everywhere you turned they were taking inspiration from Roberto Santiago's film to call it "the longest penalty in the world." The one in the film took a week, this took four minutes. But that's four long minutes. Four minutes for Messi to think of all the times Varas had stopped him already – save after brilliant save, seven of them in total. Varas too had time to think – to think of all those saves and wonder if they might be worthless; to think of all those videos and wonder if they might not.

And then it happened. Messi hit it to the goalkeeper's left and Varas flew across, pushing the ball wide. There was something just about it, something right. They thought Varas was unbeatable; now they knew he was. The Sevilla goalkeeper's display had been so impressive that tearing that unbeaten record from his hands, denying him the clean sheet, would have been unforgivably cruel. "It wouldn't have been fair to lose like that," said the Sevilla coach, Marcelino García.

Not least because the save was not completed by chance. "It is not that Messi got it wrong," Marcelino insisted, "it is that Javi Varas got it right." When Varas was asked if it was better to talk about his success or Messi's failure, he shrugged: "Well, I don't want to deny myself any credit." He admitted that he had watched Messi too; he had not simply dived in hope but in expectation.

He was right not to. During one report last year, Gol Televisión followed the Sevilla centre-forward Alvaro Negredo around. The most striking thing about it wasn't Negredo, though, but his beloved swot of a room-mate Varas, sitting in front of a laptop going through videos and reports, prepared with the goalkeeper coach Javi García, on the striker he was facing the following day.

This time it had paid off – and how. A 95th-minute penalty at the Camp Nou. And against the world's best player. Marca called it "the night that changed Varas's life", El Mundo Deportivo claimed that he had got his "doctorate", while El País said he had "humanised Messi". As for AS, it ran on "Javi Varas is legend", handing him four stars out of three. A hero, it said, was born.

Well, not born exactly. Varas was born in Sevilla in 1982, 29 years ago; his dad has been putting together scrap books of his footballing exploits, handing them over at the end of each year, for almost a decade now. And yet you could understand the sentiment. Varas was playing only his 49th La Liga game. Despite being 29 there is a sense of discovery with him – a sensation that here is someone new.

On Saturday night Sevilla wore shirts declaring "Proud of Andalucía" in response to the comments of the president of the Catalan generalitat Artur Mas, who claimed that you can't understand many Andalucíans. In the end, it was Varas they were most proud of. From the neighbourhood of the Macarena, a Sevilla season-ticket holder who began his career playing for a supporters' club in the working-class district of Pino Montano and whose shinpads are decorated with the Andalucía flag, this is the first season in which Varas has been first choice for Sevilla. And even this year only half counts.

Midway through last season, the then-coach Gregorio Manzano took advantage of an injury to 37-year-old Andrés Palop to play Varas. Although Palop was inescapably in decline, he was the captain who won five trophies with the club, who even scored a dramatic late header against Shaktar Dontesk and then saved three penalties in the shoot-out of the 2007 final – arguably the best goalkeeper in the club's history.

So while Varas became first choice, Palop kept the No1 shirt and pressure remained. When Marcelino took over this summer he decided to keep Varas in but announced he would be playing Palop – not only in the Copa del Rey, normal for the second-choice keeper, but also in the Europa League. The same Europa League that Sevilla are not in any more after Palop's errors cost them in the preliminaries. It smacked of a political decision and the generational change should have come sooner. Varas's penalty save on Saturday came on Palop's 38th birthday, but at least it came with Varas as No1.

He might never have got there at all. Sevilla had spotted him young but let him go again. At 21, he was still playing in Andalucía's regional league and working in the office of an aluminium company, earning €360 a week. When Sevilla brought him back to the club in 2005-06, he joined the B team, Sevilla Atlético. And although he won promotion with them from the Second Division B to Spain's national Second Division under Manolo Jiménez, there were still doubts – Varas did not play the vital game that clinched promotion.

At just 1.82m, he was short for a goalkeeper; slight too, weighing only 74kilos. And when he was given the chance to join the first team as the third-choice and then the second-choice goalkeeper, some suggested it was because Palop had pushed for it. Not because he was Varas's friend – although they would later become close – but because he did not see him as a threat, unlike Morgan De Sanctis, who had joined Sevilla in 2007.

Varas got his first team debut in January 2009, but played only three league games that season. He played just five in 2009-10 and although he was supposedly the Copa del Rey goalkeeper, he also found himself replaced when it got to the latter stages. Some were still not sure and he was among them. The day he got called up to play against Barcelona at the Camp Nou for the first time, he wrote on Facebook, "Vaya papelón". What a thankless job that is! He conceded four.

His Twitter feed contains just one tweet: "nada".

And twice he contemplated ditching the game altogether. In 2006, he thought he would not make it. Last season was different. After a Europa League game against the Ukrainian side Karpaty, he went home and told his wife María Eugenia that his career was over. Sevilla had won 4-0, Varas had kept a clean sheet, but something did not feel right. His wife, who was pregnant at the time, talked him round. And for 'talked him round' read 'told him not to be so bloody stupid'.

A year on, Palop is fit but it no longer matters: these days, Varas plays. Sevilla are unbeaten in fourth. This is their best start since 1945 – and in 1945 they won the league. They owe much of it to Varas. Marcelino has built a well-organised side that succeeded in largely frustrating Barcelona, but they continue to struggle when the onus is upon them to create.

Even the coach admitted: "You don't get a point from the Camp Nou without your goalkeeper being the man of the match." It is not the only time. Sevilla have won four from four at home – all by a solitary goal – and drawn all four away, three of them 0-0. Only Levante have conceded fewer. Yet this season only two goalkeepers have made more saves. Against Barcelona, Varas made the last-minute save that continued their record. Just as he did in the final minute against Sporting Gijón, stopping Alberto Botía. Better late than never. And on Saturday it could hardly have been later. Or better.

It is only a few days now since Varas travelled to the Sanchez Pizjuán, caught the lift up to the first floor, with its sign warning "maximum capacity: 3 sevillistas", strolled along the whitewashed corridor, past the black and white photos that adorn the walls, and entered the president's office. There, he signed his new contract. Once he had scrawled his name on the deal, his status at last secured, José María del Nido shook his hand and said: "With this contract, I can't even begin to tell you the saves you're going to have to make." A 95th-minute penalty against Messi at the Camp Nou is not a bad way to start.

Talking points

Real Madrid went to the top of the table by beating Málaga 4-0, prompting the newspaper AS to splash a huge yellow ¡LÍDERES! on its front cover. On Sunday night, Levante went to the top of the table – for the first time in their 102-year history – by beating Villarreal 3-0, prompting the newspaper AS to splash a huge yellow ¡LÍDERES! on their front cover. Eh? Oh, yeah. Prompting AS to splash something about Cristiano Ronaldo getting 11 Real Madrid hat-tricks on its front cover.

Now, in fairness, Ronaldo did score a hell of a good hat-trick against Málaga. And Real Madrid were astonishingly good on Saturday – in the first half at least. Quick, precise, pressuring high up the pitch, and devastatingly effective in front of goal, they completely blew Málaga apart. Oddly, Málaga actually played reasonably well … at one end of the pitch. At the other, they simply could not live with Madrid. Higuaín got the first from a wonderful pass by Ángel Di María. Ronaldo got the next three – including one back-heel volley.

But still: Levante for goodness sake. And they are not on the cover of any of the national sports dailies (and only Marca has the perfectly good excuse that it is leading with Simoncelli instead). Its story, told here last week, just gets better and better. They are top on their own for the first time ever, with six successive wins (and two draws in their other two games.) Better still, they have now collected half the points they will need to survive – after just eight games – and completely destroyed Villarreal, playing some swift, neat football, always finding pace behind Villarreal (especially on Villarreal's right).

There were two more for Juanlu and another one for Koné. "This is a lovely moment" said the coach Juan Ignacio Martínez. Asked what their limit was he said: "It's hard to take a question like that – we're Levante." Well, quite. They're already beyond their limits. The week before, Nano had been asked if they could win the league. No, he said. He was asked if they could get a European place. No, he said. Isn't there any room to dream?, he was asked. No, he said. After last night, Juanlu summed it up: "¡Olé our bollocks!"

¡Olé! indeed.

• Results: Sporting 2-0 Granada (Sporting off the bottom), Racing 0-1 Espanyol (Racing on the bottom. Meanwhile, Ali Syed chased by Interpol), Málaga 0-4 Real Madrid, Barcelona 0-0 Sevilla, Betis 0-2 Rayo, Real Sociedad 0-0 Getafe, Atlético 1-1 Mallorca (Still, at least Atlético scored at last), Osasuna 3-0 Zaragoza, Valencia 1-1 Athletic (Two great goals – one from Muniaín and one from Soldado, gorgeously assisted by Banega), Villarreal 0-3 Levante.

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