La Liga: Real Betis 1-2 FC Barcelona: Match Review

David Ramos

Barcelona had to dig deep to hold off the challenge of Real Betis and maintain their six-point lead at the top of La Liga ahead of next week’s clash with second-place Atletico Madrid

Barcelona had to dig deep to hold off the challenge of Real Betis and maintain their six-point lead at the top of La Liga ahead of next week’s clash with second-place Atletico Madrid. A brace from Lionel Messi not only ensured the Argentine’s place in history as the most prolific scorer in any given calendar year, but also secured the three points for the visitors who were forced to ride their luck at times after Ruben Castro pulled a goal back before half-time.

Real Betis

Barcelona

Possession

35%

65%

Total Shots

10

13

Shots on Target

3

8

Pass Accuracy

74%

89%

Fouls

17

11

Offsides

3

5

Yellow Cards

3

2

Red Cards

0

0

Tito Vilanova made one change from the team that annihilated Athletic Bilbao last Saturday, as Barcelona captain Carles Puyol was restored to the starting line-up at the expense of Javier Mascherano. Aside from that, the Blaugrana were unchanged, with Xavregas starting in midfield, behind an attack that featured Lionel Messi – who unsurprisingly recovered from his bruised knee needing just two goals to eclipse Gerd Muller’s long-standing record for goals in a calendar year.

Real Betis started the better side, and as expected, the hosts were content to sit back and concede possession to their illustrious visitors. Then, when they got the ball, Pepe Mel’s side looked to counter-attack down each flank and with this approach they created the game’s first chance. Arsenal loanee Joel Campbell provided the cross for Salva Sevilla, but Sevilla didn’t get enough power behind his effort to trouble Victor Valdés. Even with ten Canteranos on the field, Barcelona were struggling to make the most of their possession. So, when Cesc Fàbregas pulled up with an injury I was wondering who would replace the in-form midfielder. Thiago Alcântara? Maybe David Villa? Wrong on both counts; Tito opted to replace Cesc with Alexis Sánchez, who was making his first appearance in almost a month. Could the Chilean turn the game in Barcelona’s favour?

That’s not to say Barca were playing badly, it’s just that they weren’t creating enough chances. With a quarter of an hour gone, Barcelona were yet to muster a single shot, on or off-target. However, with Lionel Messi on the field, they only needed one shot to take the lead. Receiving a pass from Andrés Iniesta, Messi embarked on a darting run across goal, and aided by the movement of Alexis Sánchez – who dragged Javi Chica away from the Argentine with a superb decoy run – Messi created enough space for a shot, and as it turned out, enough space to score his 85th goal of 2012.

One could argue that the goal came against the run of play, which it probably did, but with a goal advantage, Barcelona started to control the game. Andrés Iniesta nearly caught Adrian out with a speculative lobbed effort just moments after Messi’s opener and within ten minutes, the Blaugrana had doubled their lead and yep, you guessed it, Lionel Messi got the goal. Collecting a delightful return pass from Andrés Iniesta, Messi didn’t even need to take a touch to set himself, firing the ball into the opposite corner of the net at the first time of asking. And just like that, Muller’s record was no more. There was no over-the-top celebration; no-one even felt the need to point at their thigh, instead Lionel Messi chose to share this moment of history with his team-mates. After all, the most important thing for Messi was the three points.

Real Betis did pull one back before half-time though as Ruben Castro broke the offside trap to collect Alvaro Vadillo’s through ball and slot the ball past Victor Valdés. It was Castro’s fourth goal in his last three appearances against Barcelona, and buoyed by the goal, Betis went on to exert significant pressure on the visitors in the remaining five minutes of the first-half. However, Barcelona held on to lead 2-1 at the break.

Both managers made a change at the interval, as Carles Puyol was replaced by Javier Mascherano, while Jorge Molina took Joel Campbell’s place in attack. With news emerging on Cesc Fàbregas’ injury – the former Arsenal captain is set to miss four weeks with a muscle tear – Culés were hoping that the change was a tactical decision from Tito Vilanova. Unfortunately, Puyi was taken off after suffering some discomfort in his thigh and therefore Carles could be set to miss yet more game-time through injury.

Betis once again started the half as the better team and nearly forced an equaliser through Salva Sevilla, whose ambitious cross-turned-shot caused Valdés some real trouble. However, lady luck was on the Catalan keeper’s side and Betis failed to capitalise on his error. In fact, lady luck again came to Barcelona’s rescue around the 70 minute mark when Javier Mascherano’s attempted headed clearance (following a Betis corner) rebounded off the inside of the post and into the relieved grasp of Victor Valdés.

Pedro could have killed the game off just minutes later, but the Spaniard was denied a much-needed goal courtesy of a good save from Adrian. Maybe Pedro should have tried to drag his shot across goal, maybe he should have struck the ball with a little more finesse – but who’s to say anyone else (bar Messi) would have scored that chance? Real Betis continued to press forward in search of an equaliser and came desperately close to finding one through Alex Pozuelo who crashed a left-footed shot off the frame of Valdés’ goal. Just how on earth were Barcelona still ahead?

Vilanova responded by replacing Pedro with Thiago Alcântara, and Thiago made an instant impact, setting up Lionel Messi for what could have been his hat-trick, but Adrian made a crucial save to keep Betis in the game. However, the rebound was still to play for and Jordi Alba looked set to put the game beyond doubt with an open goal just a few yards out, but somehow the left-back hit the crossbar and Betis escaped. Try as they might, Betis couldn’t find a way past the Barcelona defense in the final few minutes meaning that Barcelona head into next week’s top of the table clash with a six-point lead over Atletico Madrid. Visca el Barca!

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