Barça stay within five points of leaders Real Madrid after a thrilling 4-2 victory over Real Betis at Camp Nou tonight. Early goals from Xavi Hernandez and Leo Messi looked to put Barça on the road to a comfortable victory but Betis complicated things by pulling the game back to 2-2. The possibility of dropping two more points seemed real until Alexis Sanchez scored his sixth Liga goal of the season with just 15 minutes remaining and Leo Messi completed the scoring with his second of the night from the penalty spot.
With Pep Guardiola and Pepe Mel in charge of the teams the entertainment was assured. Guardiola went for a defence of three again and during the first ten minutes we again looked vulnerable against a team that pressed us up the pitch. The first warning came in the sixth minute when Ruben Castro slipped a pass in for Molina and Valdés on his 30th birthday had to come out quickly to save at Molina’s feet, and then from the resulting corner Valdés had to save again from Molina’s near post header.
Our formation was looking somewhat risky to say the least but it seemed so because Betis were also taking their risks and this would be exposed as soon as Barça decided to attack. Xavi and Iniesta combined to work the ball to Alexis who started on the left, Alexis sent a neat little pass into the area for Cesc’s typical run into space, Cesc shot from an angle and the ball hit the far post but came out nicely for Xavi who snapped the ball home. Within two minutes Iniesta again fed Alexis on the left, this time Alexis whipped in a quick low cross and Messi got away from the attentions of the defence to stab the ball in from seven yards.
The two goal advantage was perhaps a bit much for the merits of the two teams in the first twelve minutes, though Barça did then play some stunning stuff after the second goal but only for a few minutes. Iniesta was involved in nearly everything whether he was sending searching passes for Alexis, spinning away from Iriney as though he wasn’t there or trying to surprise Casto with an effort from 45 yards. However, the intensity began to drop and Betis again began to come forward with Montero and Salva getting forward on the wings to support Ruben Castro and Molina. Ruben Castro had one shot that went over after hitting Busquets and we again began to look uncomfortable to the point that Puyol in a very un-Barça like moment, was forced to boot the ball out for a Betis throw.
Perhaps this was the real sign that things weren’t all right tonight. Moments later Betis came forward on the left, Salva sent the ball in again for Molina who got behind Mascherano, Valdés was forced to come out and Molina then turned away and played the ball back for Salva who swept the ball in quickly and Castro stuck out a leg and steered the ball in for our first Liga goal conceded at home of the season.
Betis gave us another scare with a Molina header over from a corner and at this point we were not creating much at the other end. Cuenca, no doubt following instructions was stuck out wide on the right which is all well and good if you try and use him. However, Cuenca only had a couple of chances to demonstrate his crossing skill, the second time the cross was just a touch behind Messi though Messi earned himself a yellow card for using his arm to control the ball.
Both coaches made changes at half time, Alves came on for Cuenca and played the double role of right wing while trying to get back to right back to support the defence, while Mel brought on another attacker, Santa Cruz, in place of midfielder Iriney. It was daring and it paid off, at least for a while. Iniesta who had had an excellent first half made a rare mistake and lost possession, Betis got forward on the left, salva played the ball inside to Santa Cruz just outside the area and he had enough space to find a shot that beat Valdés inside the post.
Barça tried to hit straight back with Abidal forward to assist Messi but Casto made a fine low save from Messi’s shot, but as the minutes ticked by the anxiety began to creep into our game. We were trying everything but it began to look like our impatience would get the better of us. In the 69th minute Iniesta was scythed down just inside the area on the left but the referee inexplicably didn’t see it. I know the refs have a very difficult job and it is of course possible that he didn’t see it but this was, as we say in Spain “un penalty COMO UNA CASA!”, and to add insult to injury the ref gave Iniesta a yellow card.
Fortunately we didn’t have long to regret this decision. In the next minute Messi set off on an electric run only to be stopped illegally by Mario. The ref had no choice really but to show Mario his second yellow card and Betis were down to ten. The chances started coming more frequently now, Alexis was now playing at centre forward and the passes started to find him. The first time Casto did well to save at Alexis’s feet, but in the 75th minute Xavi sent Alexis through again, the Chilean checked to set the ball up on his right foot before letting fly with a powerful shot along the deck that Casto could only touch though not stop. For Betis to come back again was asking too much though Ruben Castro did manage to force one more save from Valdés in injury time. Before that Messi had put the result beyond doubt from the penalty spot after the ref finally awarded us one for a handball from Dorado.
This was definitely a good game from a spectators point of view but we were not nearly as dominant as usual at home. There were periods where Betis gave us some serious problems and one has to wonder whether such a risky formation is really the best thing when you need consistency to win the league. It could just be that we were reserving strength for the Madrid game but I don’t really buy this theory. It is difficult to maintain the level and it may also be that we are suffering a little physically due to the trip to Japan last month. We have another massive test now with the Madrid games now, I trust the team will react and we will again enjoy another great Bernabeu performance on Wednesday.
Barça: Valdés 7, Puyol 6, Mascherano 6.5, Abidal 6; Busquets 6, Xavi 7.5, Iniesta 7.5 (Adriano m87, –), Cesc 7 (Thiago m83 –); Cuenca 6 (Alves m45, 6), Messi 8, Alexis 7.5.
Goals: m10 Xavi 1-0, m12 Messi 2-0, m31 Ruben Castro 2-1, m51 Santa Cruz 2-2, m75 Alexis 3-2, m86 Messi (pen) 4-2.
Barça yellow cards: m44 Messi, m49, Puyol, m69 Iniesta