The Copa del Rey semi finals await Barça after a 5-0 win over Real Betis in tonight’s quarter final first leg at Camp Nou. Leo Messi celebrated his second Ballon d’Or by scoring another hat-trick and goals from Pedro and Keita near the end left the tie practically out of Betis’s reach. The win means that the team has equalled Barça’s best ever unbeaten run of 27 games which was set in the 1973/74 season. Since losing to Hercules on September 11, we have won 22 and drawn 5 in Liga, Copa and Champions League.
Pep Guardiola showed he meant business tonight by selecting a very strong side with only Valdés and Abidal left out of the theoretical strongest eleven. From the beginning Betis showed that they deserved Guardiola’s respect. They are obviously used to having the ball when they play in the second division and to their credit they tried to stick to their normal style despite playing at Camp Nou. This led to a very open game with both defences plaing high up the pitch, and as an example of Betis’s ambition there were moments when Barça had the ball in defence and I counted seven Betis players in our half to pressurize our defence, and there were times when we did not look comfortable at the back because of this.
However, this also meant that there were spaces behind both defences and the chances came in for both teams. Villa brought the first save of the match from Betis keeper Casto in the first minute, and a couple of minutes later Casto was very alert and quick to rush out to intercept Iniesta’s clever throughball intended for Messi, the ball then went straight up the other end and Pinto had to save with his knee a shot from Ruben Castro.
In the 14th minute Xavi played the ball towards Villa on the left, Villa ran towards the ball but jumped over it to allow Maxwell to receive, Maxwell played the ball straight back into the middle for Villa who had continued his run but the final shot hit the base of the post. However, Betis continued to find chances for themselves, in the 21st minute Jorge Molina turned inside Puyol but he could only shoot wide of Pinto’s near post. Maxwell was getting forward well on the left and in the 24th minute his cross found Messi at the far post, Messi controlled brilliantly with his chest before firing a volley from close in that Casto did brilliantly to parry. Ruben Castro had another effort to beat Pinto but his lob went over the bar, this was followed by the unusual sight of Piqué and Alves shouting and gesticulating at each other for at least ten seconds (maybe Alves is just jealous about the rumour in today’s press that Piqué is going out with the well-known singer Shakira).
Little by little, as we neared the end of the first half, we began to look more in control. Villa and Pedro both had chances, and despite another Pinto save from Molina’s header, we were getting closer and closer to a goal. Villa had the ball in the net after 42 minutes but he was correctly called offside, then just before half time Xavi won the ball near the half-way line and Iniesta came away with the ball, Iniesta then fed Vila and went forward to receive the ball in his stride, he then drew the defence towards him before freeing Messi on the right and Messi comfortably stroked the ball past Casto.
Betis didn’t change their style after the goal and this was demonstrated early in the second half when Xavi was robbed of the ball trying to dribble out of the side of the penalty area. Right up to the hour mark Betis were well in the game and Castro forced another save from Pinto after Piqué gave the ball away near the touchline. However, we have often seen that teams who try to pressurize us all over the pitch end up running out of gas, and this is what happened in the last half hour as we began to exploit the growing spaces in the Betis defence. In the 62nd minute a clearance fell straight to Maxwell in the Betis half, Maxwell played it forward to Villa who found Messi in the area, Casto stopped Messi’s first effort but Messi being Messi was onto the rebound and he somehow found a gap to send the ball softly over the line for his second.
My first thought when the ball went in was: now we must finish them off. And that is exactly what we did. Xavi began to find the gaps behind the Betis defence and it was usually Alves or Messi to run onto the pass. In the 69th minute, Xavi sent Alves through but Alves fired a good chance wide, then four minutes later Xavi again put a great ball through this time for Mesi to run straight through the middle before clinically beating Casto for his hat-trick. Mesi then missed an even better chance probably because he had too much time to think and a moment’s hesitation gave Casto the chance to close down the angle.
Our chances were coming quickly now, Messi had another run thwarted as he got close to goal, and then Alves again burst into the area after another Xavi pass, Alves dribbled right up top the keeper and when Casto denied him Alves knocked the ball back to Pedro who made no mistake from eight yards out. There was yet another chance for Alves with yet another save from Casto, but then in the 83rd minute Messi found Iniesta inside the area near the goal line, Iniesta surprised everyone by scoping the ball up with his instep, sending the ball in a high loop to trhe far post where Keita jumped higher than anyone else to head home the fifth.
I have to say I felt sorry for Betis as they played with a lot of heart and courage. It is just another sign of how good Barça are at the moment, that I can honestly say Betis played at a pretty decent level, and for an hour they were very good. I would like to see teams rewarded for not parking the bus but it seems it doesn’t matter how you play us at the moment, Depor were very defensive on Saturday and they lost 0-4, Betis were much more ambitious in their approach and the received a 5-0 thrashing. We were not at our best tonight and we allowed Betis more chances than most teams have had against us recently. Fortunately Pinto had a decent game between the post though his play with his feet is still not really up to scratch, it reminds me how lucky we are to have Valdés whose mistakes with his kicking are few and far between. We are back to the league on Saturday with the visit of Malaga, Pep Guardiola will now have the advantage of picking a strong team for this game with the knowledge that we can rest players for the second leg at Betis next week without it being much of a risk.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 6.5, Piqué 6, Puyol 6, Maxwell 7; Xavi 8, Busquets 6, Iniesta 8; Pedro 6.5 (Afellay m79, 6), Messi 8.5 (Jeffren m86, –), Villa 6.5 (Keita m74, 6.5).
Betis: Casto; Isidoro, Miki Roqué, Arzu, Nacho; Iriney (m63 Juanma), Beñat (m57 Juande), Salva Sevilla; Israel (m76Pereira), Rubén Castro, Molina.
Goals: m44 Messi 1-0, m63 Messi 2-0, m73 Messi 3-0, m76 Pedro 4-0, m83 Keita 5-0.
Yellow cards: m20 Iriney, m39 Miki Roqué, m56 Busquets, m60 Isidoro