Barça kept up the pressure on leaders Atlético Madrid with a 3-1 victory over bottom-placed Real Betis at Camp Nou this evening. Leo Messi fired Barça into an early lead from the penalty spot but it wasn’t until the 67th minute, when Betis were having their best spell of the game, that a fortunate own goal from Jordi Figueras put Barça 2-0 up. Ruben Castro immediately pulled a goal back for the visitors to maintain the tension and Barça had to wait until a second penalty four minutes from the end for Messi to wrap up the three points. Real Madrid maintain their title challenge with a 0-4 win at Real Sociedad which leaves the top of the table with Atlético on 79pts, Barça on 78 and Madrid on 76 with just six games to go.
Betis set out to defend from the start. Coach Gabriel Caldéron left his two best strikers, Ruben Castro and Jorge Molina, on the bench and started with a defensive 4-5-1. Barça began slowly and initially failed to penetrate until Bartra headed a corner over, taking a punch from keeper Adan in the process. Adriano, filling in for the suspended Jordi Alba, was active on the left and in the 11th minute he got forward to assist Xavi who fired a powerful low shot which brought an excellent save from Adan. Then in the 14th minute Bartra hoofed a high clearance forward which was brilliantly brought down by Alexis. The control sent the Chilean in a direct line for the penalty area and despite having four defenders in front of him, he twisted and turned to shake off Reyes and then twisted and turned again to try and beat Figueras, drawing the foul which gave referee Prieto Iglesias no choice but to signal a penalty. It was a magnificent run from Alexis, and Messi sent Adan the wrong way from the spot.
The goal made the game seem comfortable but Barça were lacking bite and ambition to push for a second. Adriano whipped a low cross into the danger zone but Figueras got between Pedro and Alves to put the ball out for a corner, and there was nothing more to trouble Adan. Barça’s lack of intensity allowed Betis the chance to make some timid attacks but Pinto had little problem dealing with shots from Baptistao and Vadillo while everything else from the visitors was well off target. There was little more of note besides a couple of tackles from Busquets and then an audacious double-dragback from the Barça midfielder to slip away from Nono and N’Diaye. However, the first chance ended with a chance at either end, first Messi fired narrowly wide after a sensational run past Amaya, then Mascherano had to be quick to block N’Diaye’s shot.
Barça continued to go through the motions at the start of the second half. Betis had looked very mediocre in the first 45 minutes and for Barça it was perhaps normal to hold a bit back with the Champions League return at Atlético on Wednesday. Xavi curled a free-kick off the top of the crossbar but after around the 55th minute Betis seemed to wake up to the idea that they could still get something from the game.
Suddenly Barça started to lose composure. Cedrick had a couple of shots over then in the 58th minute Vadillo sent in a dangerous cross that just evaded Cedrick in front of goal. Calderón sensed blood and threw on Molina and Ruben Castro and soon after N’Diaye’s shot took an awkward deflection off Bartra, and Pinto reacted splendidly to tip the ball over.
Barça were looking all over the place and Alves needed to scoop the ball away from inside the goal area after another scramble. The possibility of a shock was very real but just when Betis were threatening the most Barça got a stroke of luck that should have sewn the game up. Adriano got forward again on the left and when he tried to squeeze the ball through for Pedro the unfortunate Figueras slid in to intercept but only succeeded in diverting the ball past the wrong-footed Adan.
It should now have been all over but a minute later Castro took advantage of Adriano’s slip to score from N’Diaye’s cross. The number of Barça players on the floor when the goal went in was indicative of the chaotic state of Barça’s defence at this point. However, the shock of conceding a goal woke Barça up a bit. The action switched back to the other end with Alexis shooting narrowly over. Tata Martino waited until the 79th minute before making any substitutions with Neymar and Fabregas replacing Pedro and a surprisingly below-par Iniesta.
Fabregas’s first action was to send Messi into the area and the Argentinian was possibly fouled by Figueras before losing control of the ball. As so often happens when a referee doesn’t see clearly what has happens he awarded a corner as a half-way point between the goal-kick and the penalty. Prieto Iglesias had little doubt soon after when Neymar sprinted past Juanfran and sent a cross that hit Amaya on the hand. The ref awarded a second penalty and this time Messi needed two bites of the cherry with Adan diving left to stop the spot-kick but the Argentinian’s rebound crept home despite another despairing hand from the keeper.
There were two late chances for Neymar and Fabregas but the Brazilian was leaning back and sent his shot wide, then Adan made one final diving save to tip Fabregas’s effort past the post.
The situation at the top of the table is going to cause a nerve-wracking final run-in for the title. But first we have the immense test of Wednesday’s Champions League return at Atlético. There is going to be one hell of atmosphere at the Vicente Calderón with Simeone animating the whole stadium from the touchline. Barça will need to improve on tonight’s sluggish showing but we have seen on countless occasions how the players can react when the moment demands it.
Barça: Pinto 6.5; Alves 5.5, Bartra 6.5, Mascherano 6.5, Adriano 7.5; Xavi 7 (Song m88, –), Busquets 8, Iniesta 6 (Fabregas m79, 6.5); Alexis 7, Messi 7, Pedro 6.5 (Neymar m79, 6.5).
Betis: Adan; Juanfran, Amaya, Jordi Figueras, Juan Carlos; Cedrick (Ruben Castro m61), Reyes, N’Diaye, Nono, Vadillo (Molina m61); Baptistao (Briain Rodriguez m82).
Goals: m15 Messi (pen) 1-0, m67 Jordi Figueras (o.g) 2-0, m68 Ruben Castro 2-1, m86 Messi (pen) 3-1.
Yellow cards: m60 Reyes, m77 Amaya.
Attendance: 81, 978