Leo Messi’s 85th and 86th goals of 2012 earned Barça a tremendously exciting 1-2 victory over a valiant Betis side tonight to stay six points clear of Atlético Madrid at the top of La Liga. Following Barça these days means we always seem to be talking about one record or another but there is something very special about Messi’s astounding achievement to beat Gerd Müller’s 1972 record of goals scored in one calendar year.
Messi overcame the knock on his knee to lead the attack with Pedro on the right and Iniesta on the left. Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fabregas started in midfield, while at the back we began with Adriano, Piqué, Puyol and Jordi Alba. However, after just eight minutes Fabregas pulled a thigh muscle which could see him out of action for three to four weeks, and Alexis Sanchez came on, taking the left wing position with Iniesta moving back to midfield.
Betis had the better of the early exchanges, playing a high defence they looked very compact for the first fifteen minutes while trying to break quickly. After just three minutes Joel Campbell sent in a cross from the right and Castro’s diving header forced Valdés into the first save of the game. On another break Salva Sevilla broke through the middle and there was a moment of concern when the ball hit Piqué’s hand just outside the area but the ref Carlos Velasco Carballo waved play on.
Messi had not been very involved and he twice lost the ball after a poor control. However, on 15 minutes, Xavi played the ball out to Alexis on the left and after receiving the return switched play inside to Iniesta who played the ball on to Messi who was thirty yards from goal. With a quick burst of acceleration Messi set off on a diagonal run into the left of the area, the defence couldn’t stay with him as Amaya got in Dorado’s way, Messi kept going into the area and then whipped a shot back that went through Chica’s legs and across the goalkeeper Adrian and into the far corner. Out of nowhere Barça were ahead and Müller’s record of 85 was equalled.
The game changed after the first goal with Barça taking complete control. Iniesta came close with a delightful chip that Adrian did well to tip over, and soon after Adriano made a surge into the area and Juan Carlos was injured in his lunge to intervene. For some reason Betis took six minutes to bring on Vadillo and while they were down to ten men Barça took advantage to go two up. Adriano had been freed of his marker and he made a run forward through a more central position before touching the ball on to Messi 30 yards out. Messi sent a pass forward into the area for Iniesta who controlled before flicking the ball back to Messi who fired in an almost identical shot to the first goal and Müller’s record was conquered.
Messi might have had a third but he was incorrectly called offside after being sent clean through. And as Barça continued to dominate Xavi drove in a 25-yard swerver that Adrian managed to palm out for a corner. However, Barça’s period of dominance came to an end in the 39th minute when Betis pulled a goal back after Alba failed to move out with the rest of the defence and Vadillo slipped a pass through for Castro who showed a cool finish, side-footing past Valdés into the far corner. The first half ended at a terrific pace as the reanimated Betis came looking for an equalizer.
Both teams made another substitution at half time with Mascherano replacing Puyol who felt a niggle and came off as a precaution, while Jorge Molina replaced Campbell for Betis. Barça struggled to regain control of the game and Betis began to create more chances. In the 51st minute Sevilla hooked in a looping cross and Valdés found the crossbar in the way as he jumped for the ball which broke between the keeper and Castro about a yard out, as Castro tried to force it in the ball again hit the post and Valdés managed to smother the rebound.
Betis were looking the hungrier team and they were pushing further forward now. Castro had one shot blocked by Piqué but managed a second bite after Busquets’ hesitation but fired straight at Valdés, and soon after Mascherano got caught in possession and was forced into conceding a corner by Molina’s pressing. Pedro and Alexis were working hard up front with little luck and Alexis was victim of some rough treatment from the Betis defenders. However, when we are struggling to play there is always Iniesta who showed great vision to send a vertical pass for Messi to chase but Adrian was alert to rush 30 yards out of his goal to clear.
It was a brief moment from Barça. In the 69th minute Adriano gave away a corner on the left, Beñat swung the ball into the near post where a group of players jumped for the ball which seemed to flick off Mascherano and then off Piqué before flying across the goal, hitting the far post and flying back to Valdés who held on well just a yard off his line. As time ticked away there was always the chance that Barça could score on the break and in the 77th minute Alexis sent a crossfield ball to Pedro who had to slightly adjust his stride which meant he didn’t get the best shot and Adrian saved.
It was tremendously exciting stuff now and Betis again hit the post with ten minutes remaining when Pozuelo blasted the ball from 20 yards against the outside of the upright. It was awful luck for Betis but then they were themselves saved by the woodwork when first Adrian and the post combined to prevent Messi’s hat-trick and Alba, following-up, inexplicable sent the ball against the crossbar from about three yards out. It might have been a costly miss but Betis were running out of steam. Thiago should have scored near the end after Messi’s assist. And then in one final push Betis won a corner in injury time with keeper Adrian coming forward, though Molina’s header went well over. It was a very nervy second half but Barça held on for three very important points.
Betis: Adrian; Chica, Amaya, Dorado, Nacho; Beñat, Cañas; Campbell (Molina m45), Sevilla (Pozuelo m74), Juan Carlos (Vadillo m29); Ruben Castro.
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Adriano 6.5, Piqué 7.5, Puyol 6.5 (Mascherano m45, 6), Alba 6; Xavi 7, Busquets 7, Fabregas — (Alexis m9, 6); Pedro 6 (Thiago m82, –), Messi 8, Iniesta 8.5,
Goals: m16 Messi 0-1, m25 Messi 0-2, m39 Castro 1-2.
Yellow cards: m37 Campbell, m61 Alba, m63 Vadillo, m76 Pedro, m89 Nacho.