Barça moved three points clear at the top of La Liga tonight after a 1-4 victory over Betis at the Benito Villamarin. The scoreline suggests an easy away win but Betis had the better of the first 30 minutes when Victor Valdés twice had to save to prevent the Andalusians from taking the lead. Two goals in a minute from Neymar Junior and Pedro Rodriguez put Barça 0-2 up at half-time then Cesc Fabregas put the result beyond doubt with a second half brace before Jorge Molina fired in a consolation penalty for Betis in injury time. The victory again came at a price with Leo Messi limping off in the twentieth minute with another thigh injury.
Despite the win and the extension of the unbeaten start to the season there will again be questions about the way that Barça played. To begin, in the initial exchanges Barça failed to match the home team’s aggressive and dynamic approach, perhaps the six changes made to the team by Tata Martino played its part in the slow start. The slow dry pitch didn’t help Barça’s rhythm and with Betis employing an energetic high pressing game most of the early play was towards Valdés’s goal.
Betis mainly attacked down their right against Martin Montoya who began nervously at left-back. In the 10th minute the home team won a free kick, Juan Carlos curled the ball in left-footed from the right, the ball broke to Molina but Marc Bartra, who had a very solid game alongside the less-certain Carles Puyol in defence, got across to block the striker’s shot.
Barça managed one decent counter-attack in the 12th minute with Pedro sending a long ball to Neymar on the left, the Brazilian nipped past two defenders but his cross was just out of Messi’s reach. However, Barça’s general disorganization was demonstrated by Neymar stopping when he’d been sent through, incorrectly believing the linesman was going to call him offside.
Betis continued to have the better of the game and in the 17th minute Molina for once got past Bartra but Valdés was out quickly, spreading himself well to cover the angles and block Molina’s shot with his chest. A minute later a cross-field ball arrived to Vadillo on the right, he crossed to the far post where Juan Carlos won the header but Valdés did magnificently to save by the post.
Valdés was booked for protesting and soon after Messi limped off to be replaced by Iniesta. Fabregas moved to the false nine position but things were definitely not looking good for Barça at this point. At least the brave approach shown by Betis allowed Barça the opportunity to counter, and at times it was end-to-end stuff. Pedro pushed the ball through for Alves to send in an excellent cross to the far post but Neymar sent his header disappointingly close to Betis keeper Guille Sara who made a quick reaction save. However, there was still more danger near the Barça area with Caro heading over from a free kick, Vadilla beating Adriano for speed and only being denied by another good intervention from Bartra, and, soon after, Molina flicking his header wide after Steinhöfer’s cross.
Betis had clearly had the better of the game but after the half-hour mark Barça began to get on top. Bartra sent a long ball into Neymar in a good position but the Brazilian’s control let him down. Next, Pedro was sent through but Sara stood his ground well to save. Barça continued to look for the quick pass in behind the advanced Betis defence and in the 35th minute Alex Song threaded the ball through to Fabregas on the right, Fabregas unselfishly played a square pass inside and despite a bad bounce Neymar kept his eye on the ball to sweep home the opener.
Barça’s goal was followed by another a minute later. Bartra headed the ball out of defence to Pedro. With the Betis defence moving forward to leave Neymar in an offside position, Pedro knocked the ball through and chased it himself, Sara decided not to come which meant the Canarian was allowed to sprint into the area and before the defence could arrive, he slipped the ball neatly inside the far post.
The double blow undoubtedly affected Betis and they never quite matched the level shown in the first half hour. Barça might have made it 0-3 just before the break when Neymar found Pedro in a good position but Jordi Figueras made a late block to send Pedro’s effort narrowly wide.
There was another brief flurry from Betis at the start of the second half. Nono drove a shot against Song and Verdú sent a side-foot volley narrowly wide. Bartra continued in dominant form, reading Juan Carlos’s run to intercept, then soon after, saving Iniesta’s bacon by making a magnificent block on Vadillo. The Betis players must have realised it wasn’t going to be their day when Nono’s 30-yard drive bounced away off the far post.
It’s always more difficult to keep working at such a pace when luck is running against you, and Betis inevitably dropped their rhythm and subsequently closed down Barça’s midfield less which made it even easier for Barça to attack the growing spaces in the Betis half. Fabregas sent a chip over the top to send Neymar through but after cutting inside Caro the Brazilian twice failed to beat Sara from close range, smacking the first shot against the goalkeeper’s leg and then firing the rebound against his chest.
Both Xavi and Iniesta had had relatively quiet games but in the 63rd minute they combined, with Iniesta chipping a superb ball through to Montoya who’d got into the area to cross for Fabregas to make it 0-3 with an easy finish.
There was little from Betis now as Barça finally found their possession game. Pepe Mel brought on Chuli, Didac and Matilla but it made little difference. Martino gave Neymar a rest to allow 15 minutes to Christian Tello, and soon after, Alves sent in a long cross which was met by Fabregas with a downward header that hit the post before spinning over the line. Fabregas was rewarded by being subbed off a minute later to give ten minutes to Sergi Roberto.
There was little more though Puyol’s below-par performance offered a couple of late chances to Betis, the worst was a back pass that sent Chuli towards goal but Valdés was out of his area quickly to get a foot to the ball and when Chuli recovered he could only shoot over from 35 yards. Then in the second minute of injury time Alves was guilty of a pull on Matilla inside the area and Molina sent Valdés the wrong way from the spot to earn Betis a small consolation for their efforts.
The result again demonstrates the effectiveness of Martino’s methods though it will do little to dispel the arguments about the style of play. Martino and his players continue to say that nothing has changed but there is definitely more emphasis on directness which has many benefits but means we see less of the football of pinning the opponent back in their half. So far, the results are showing the intelligence of adapting to the opponent’s tactics though some might say if it wasn’t for Victor Valdés then the new methods would be much more seriously criticised.
The injury to Messi is obviously very worrying. He will no doubt be back soon but the continued run of injuries suggest a deeper problem that needs to be resolved. At least Messi’s troubles have allowed other players to shine and we finally seem to be losing the idea of Messidependency. Alexis has begun the season scoring important goals and today the other main goalscorers, Fabregas, Pedro and Neymar all added to their tallies. There will be more tests tomorrow to find the extent of Messi’s injury but at least we don’t have another game for two weeks and if he’s not ready to come back then we have plenty of other in-form players who are capable of finding the net.
Betis: Guille Sara; Steinhöfer, Caro, Jordi Figueras, Nacho; Xavi Torres, Nono (Matilla m75); Vadillo, Verdú (Chuli m63), Juan Carlos (Didac m67); Jorge Molina.
Barça: Valdés 8.5; Alves 6.5, Bartra 8, Puyol 5.5, Montoya 6.5; Xavi 6, Song 6.5, Fabregas 7.5 (Sergi Roberto m80, –); Pedro 7, Messi 6 (Iniesta m21, 7), Neymar 7 (Tello m75, 6).
Goals: m36 Neymar 0-1, m37 Pedr0 0-2, m63 Fabregas 0-3, m79 Fabregas 0-4, m92 Molina (pen) 1-4.
Yellow cards: m19 Valdés, m55 Juan Carlos, m66 Nono, m76 Xavi Torres, m92 Alves