Barça move to within two points of the league title after a 4-2 victory over Real Betis tonight. Betis twice took the lead in the first half to worry the Camp Nou crowd but goals from Alexis Sanchez, David Villa and two from substitute Leo Messi turned the game in Barça’s favour. Messi’s brace took the Argentinian to 46 league goals, just four short of his record-breaking half-century last season.
With Puyol, Mascherano, Valdés, Pedro and Fabregas unavailable and Messi and Sergio Busquets only deemed fit enough to start on the bench, Tito Vilanova went for experience over youth in his team selection, putting out a starting XI of Pinto, Alves, Piqué, Adriano, Alba, Xavi, Song, Iniesta, Alexis, Villa and Tello.
Betis came out with the intention of playing a high press and in the first minute they had already forced Pinto to kick the ball into touch. Less than a minute later the ball again came to Pinto who this time kicked long, the ball went as far as Betis left back Alex Martinez who headed the ball forward, Song misjudged the bounce and Adriano was also caught hesitating as the ball ran through for Pabón who beat Pinto to put the visitors in front.
It was an early blow that could easily have added to the negative feeling following the Champions League defeat to Bayern. Fortunately Andres Iniesta was not being marked by Javi Martinez tonight and he looked keen to demonstrate his class. In the ninth minute Alba, Tello and Iniesta combined on the left with Don Andres dancing past his man before crossing to the far post where Alexis nipped in front of Martinez to send a diving header past Betis keeper Adrian.
Iniesta and Xavi were dominating the midfield but Barça’s forwards were lacking decisiveness with Villa having a particularly unfortunate spell midway through the first half when he had four chances in the space of ten minutes. First Xavi and Alexis combined to set up a shooting chance but Villa’s finish lacked power, next he blasted over after Xavi’s assist. Then in the 29th minute Iniesta sent a nice chip forward and Villa managed a decent effort though the angle was tight and Adrian saved. A minute later Tello went to the line and pulled the ball back but Villa’s sidefoot shot from six yards hit Adrian’s outstretched leg.
Betis had also had chances with Molina heading wide after 15 minutes and Salva Sevilla having a header punched away by Pinto in the 27th, but Barça were having the better of things. Tello was looking lively on the left, setting up Iniesta with a shooting chance from the edge of the area but the ball was deflected just over. Then in the 36th minute Tello cut inside but his shot went straight at the keeper. Then five minutes later the winger took advantage of a poor headed clearance from Chica, dribbling inside past Amaya before unleashing a tremendous shot that hit the crossbar and then bounced onto the goal-line and out.
Barça probably deserved to have taken the lead by this point but just two minutes later Betis went in front again. Alexis was robbed by Nosa 35 yards from Pinto’s goal and after exchanging passes with Jorge Molina Nosa laid the ball back to Ruben Perez who let fly from 30 yards and the ball flew past Pinto into the top corner. Golazo and two-one to Betis at half time.
Barça began the second half with some uninspiring sloppiness. Adriano was caught in possession, Tello showed poor control and Piqué gave a wayward pass. Leo Messi began warming up on the touchline but things were not looking good. Then in the 56th minute Xavi played a splendid pass forward for Alves on the right and the Brazilian sent in an excellent cross to the far post where Villa headed the ball past Adrian for the equalizer.
Vilanova had already planned to take off the Asturian striker and despite the goal he went ahead with the substitution with Messi coming on. Given the fact that strikers so often build on the confidence of scoring a goal the move to take off Villa at this point did not seem the most sensible, but there is no denying the immediate influence of Messi. Shortly after Messi’s entrance Alves won a foul on the edge of the area. Messi stepped up and curled a beauty over the wall and despite Adrian’s spectacular dive to get his fingers to the ball it still went into the top corner.
In the 67th minute Tello won another free kick after a good dribble to the edge of the area. Messi again sent the ball curling away from the goalkeeper and was unlucky to see the ball bounce out of the crossbar. Betis then had their best chance of a second half goal when Perez crossed to the far post, Castro volleyed the ball back towards Pabón but the defence managed to close down the chance.
It was a brief scare as a minute later Barça went further in front. The move started with Alexis on the right who played the ball inside to Messi who knocked it on to Iniesta who played a delightful flick back to Alexis who checked in front of the keeper before unselfishly rolling the ball across to Messi who had an easy tap in for his 60th Barça goal of the season in all competitions.
There could have been more goals for Barça. Alexis failed to lift the ball over Adriano after another splendid chip forward from Iniesta. Messi failed to find Xavi after being sent into the right of the area by a fine pass from Thiago. Then right at the end Messi set off on a brilliant run past Perez and Amaya but he didn’t get his dink quite right and Adrian batted the ball away.
I have to admit before the kick-off I couldn’t understand how Messi started on the bench. Either he is at 100% in which case he should start while if he isn’t fully fit then it seemed he should be resting. However, I can’t see the training sessions or the medical scans, and four days can obviously make a difference with an injury. Whatever the case it makes one wonder what a fully-fit Messi might have done in the two games against Bayern.
Despite the positive result this was still a long way from the best Barça. There was little we could do to defend against Betis’s splendid second goal but it would never have happened if Alexis hadn’t been robbed of the ball, whereas the first goal was the result of a series of errors with Song and Adriano most guilty. We may have scored four goals but Betis left plenty of space at the back and we really should have had at least a couple more. Alexis and Villa both got on the scoresheet but there was some pretty poor finishing especially from Villa.
Barça can now be officially champions if Madrid fail to win their game against Malaga which has been brought forward to this Wednesday due to the Copa del Rey final. If Madrid win on Wednesday then the next possibility is if Madrid fail to win at Espanyol next Saturday night. If Madrid win both games then Barça can clinch the title next Sunday with a win at Atlético Madrid.
Barça: Pinto 6; Alves 6, Piqué 6.5, Adriano 6.5, Alba 6.5; Xavi 8, Song 6 (Busquets m87, –), Iniesta 8; Alexis 6.5 (Thiago m79, 6.5), Villa 5.5 (Messi m56, 8), Tello 7.
Betis: Adrian; Chica, Mario, Amaya, Alex Martinez; Ruben Perez, Nosa (Campbell m69), Sevilla (Vadillo m59); Pabón. Molina (Beñat m45), Castro.
Goals: m2 Pabón 0-1, m9 Alexis 1-1, m43 Ruben Perez 1-2, m56 Villa 2-2, m60 Messi 3-2, m71 Messi 4-2.
Yellow cards: m45 Adriano, m54 Ruben Perez.