FC Barcelona were made to work for all three points this evening as a spirited Real Betis side took them all the way. Barcelona did take the lead early on with goals from Xavi and Lionel Messi, but Betis fought their way back into contention with two of their own, supplied by Ruben Castro and Roque Santa Cruz. The Blaugrana did have one penalty appeal turned down before Mario’s red card turned the game in their favour, with Alexis Sanchez putting Barca back in front before Lionel Messi rounded off the victory with a late penalty. As it stands, Real Madrid hold a 5 point lead over Barcelona in the standings heading into the Clasico cup tie on Wednesday night.
Guardiola must have had one eye on the Clasico in midweek with his selection against Real Betis with Dani Alves and Gerard Pique on the bench, although there was a worry that it would leave the Blaugrana short at the back, both figuratively and literally. Real Betis started the better side with Molina forcing a decent save from Victor Valdes after breaking free of the defense. The resulting corner was sent into the near post and it was ex-Barcelona centre-back Mario who got on the end of it, again calling Valdes into action.
However, it was Barcelona who grabbed the first goal of the match. Alexis Sanchez played a cute through ball behind the Betis defense and Cesc Fabregas was there to try and apply the finish. Dragging his left-footed shot a little too much, the ball rebounded off the base of the post and straight to Xavi who could make no mistake with the finish. It was his 9th goal of the season, and considering his season high is 10, it’s looking like a good season for the veteran. As if you needed me to tell you!
Barcelona were ahead, even though Real Betis had started the brighter, and two minutes after the first, the Blaugrana grabbed another. Again, Sanchez was the architect, receiving the ball on the left-wing from Andres Iniesta before squaring the ball to Lionel Messi. Six yards out, with no challenges it was as simple a goal as the Argentine will ever score and Betis looked shell-shocked.
Barcelona were looking in good form, at just the right time, and Andres Iniesta personified the confidence after the two goals attempting a cheeky lob from 45 yards, and nearly succeeding. On the other hand, Barcelona should have looked for the third instead of resting on their laurels. God knows it nearly became their undoing.
Jorge Molina had the initial chance, bursting free of a couple of challenges to get one-on-one with Victor Valdes, although the Catalan closed down his angles well. Molina decided to play it back to Salva Sevilla and he sent in a great cross for Ruben Castro to finish with a tap in. It was the first goal scored against Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the league, and well deserved.
The rest of the half passed without too much incidence, but the break for half-time saw two changes. First up, Roque Santa Cruz entered the action, replacing Iriney, while Dani Alves replaced the anonymous Isaac Cuenca. Of the two switches, I would have never guessed that Santa Cruz would be more important, but he proved me wrong early on in the second half.
Barcelona’s 3-4-3 was out-numbered by the Betis frontline and Ruben Castro was the free man on the left wing. Marauding into space he picked out Santa Cruz with a square pass on the edge of the penalty area, before the Manchester City loanee found the corner with a superb effort. He had the time to pick his place, and made no mistake whatsoever with the finish. Real Betis were level, and deservedly so.
Lionel Messi had a couple of half chances, but couldn’t quite capitalise, so Guardiola reverted back to the 4-3-3 with half an hour left to play. Personally, I think he should have done that earlier, but it worked nonetheless. Xavi lifted a delightful pass over the top to Alves, but Casto reacted well to reach it before the Brazilian. Then the referee took centre-stage.
Andres Iniesta was in possession in the penalty area after a fine run from Lionel Messi, but he was heading away from goal. So, he Cruyff turned the hapless Montero, and the winger brought him down for what appeared to be a clear penalty. Instead of pointing to the spot, the referee gave the free-kick to Betis before booking Andres Iniesta for diving. A laughable decision that even the most ardent of Real Madrid fans would have trouble agreeing with.
However, the referee redeemed himself minutes later, sending off Mario for a trip on Leo Messi, his second yellow of the game. That was the beginning of the end for Betis, and Barcelona took the lead soon after. No surprises that Xavi got the assist, lifting the ball over the defense yet again, this time to Alexis Sanchez, and the Chilean skipped past a challenge before firing a shot towards the corner. Casto should have tipped it round the post, but there was too much power on the effort and Barcelona were back in the lead, albeit fortuitously.
From there on in, it was merely a formality and Betis must have felt hard done by when the referee pointed to the spot after a handball from Dorado. It was the correct decision, but only possible after Eric Abidal regained possession from an offside position and by using his hand. Lionel Messi stepped up and smashed the ball slightly left of centre for his 33rd of the season.
Why did it have to be so difficult? Onto the Bernabeu and El Clasico. Visca el Barca!