Barcelona equaled the results of the two Madrid-based title contenders with a hard-fought win against Real Betis. Led by Lionel Messi who supplied both assists, Barcelona scored twice in the second half to see off a brave Betis side who fought through a large part of the match while a man down, but Messi’s assist to Ivan Rakitić and Luis Suarez were too much for the hosts.
|Shots on Target||1||4
With Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid edging their opponents by the score of 1-0, Barcelona needed to win at the Benito Villamarin to go into Match-Day 37 as leaders. Betis, on the other hand, had nothing to play for as they were safe from relegation and could not win a place in Europe either - but they could play spoiler to Barcelona's title hopes.
From the opening whistle Barcelona allowed acres of space for Betis' counter attacks, and even before Barcelona could threaten for the first time, the hosts fired their first shots. A turnover in midfield led to a 3-2 for Betis, but after Ruben Castro poorly controlled the pass, the Spaniard was forced to take a long shot that Javier Mascherano headed wide of target. From the ensuing corner kick, Betis threatened again but Bruno González's header was saved by Claudio Bravo.
Barcelona found it difficult in the early stages of the game to control the ball and put Betis' defense under constant pressure, but slowly that started to change and the Catalans forced the hosts to defend in numbers - something they were happy to do. And they did a good job, keeping Barcelona on the perimeter with only a handful of decent looks on goal. In fact, Barcelona didn't take their first shot until the 16th minute when Jordi Alba, probably, sent such a poor cross to the middle that it threatened Antonio Adan. Two minutes later, Neymar received the ball on the left wing and after dribbling past Bruno sent a very useful ball to the edge but Andres Iniesta couldn't direct the shot on target.
Barcelona continued to press forward but Betis' defense was well organized and they dealt with Barcelona's threats excellently. They did, however, pick up quite a few yellow cards in the early going in their efforts to stop Barcelona's attacks. But eventually every defense will give up chances when the opponents spends this much time in the attacking zone. A good opportunity came for Barcelona in the 27th minute when Dani Alves sent a rare useful cross in but an uncovered Neymar couldn't head the ball on target. Two minutes later Alba found Neymar in space, but the Brazilian's shot was too central to really threaten Adan.
In the 35th minute Betis' chances of spoiling Barcelona's title hopes took a big blow as Heiko Westermann, one of those players to pick up an early yellow card, was shown a second yellow card, for a late tackle on Rakitić, and was sent to the dressing room. But despite the man advantage, Barcelona struggled to get into good scoring areas. In fact, the Catalans didn't create one noteworthy chance before the halftime whistle.
After the break, during which neither team made any changes, Barcelona quickly started camping in Betis' third and they were quickly rewarded. First though, in the 47th minute, Neymar found Suarez in space but the Uruguayan missed the target from a good position. But three minutes later, Barcelona were able to celebrate the lead. Lionel Messi sent a dangerous ball to the middle where Germán Pezzella and Adan both missed the clearance, with the ball finding its way right to the waiting Rakitić. With no goalkeeper in goal the Croatian was left with a simple tap into the wide open net.
Despite being a goal down, Betis didn't make any tactical changes to turn the score around. Even the substitutions were like-for-like as first Charly Musonda replaced Joaquín and later Francisco Portillo took the place of Dani Ceballos. While Betis remained defensive, Barcelona, after a promising start to the half, continued to find it difficult to break through the back-line and wouldn't have their next good look on goal until the 73rd minute. Then a steal by Suarez and Alves on the right wing started the attack, and after Messi found Neymar near the far post with a cross it appeared the Brazilian would easily find the open Suarez in front, but Adan left his line just in time to intercept the pass.
The following minute Barcelona had their best scoring chance of the match. Messi and Suarez were left all alone in front of goal and Messi made the unselfish play to find Suarez who powered the ball from point blank but it went right at Adan. Immediately after the miss Luis Enrique made his first change of the match, taking off Alves and replacing him with Sergi Roberto
With the game still close, Betis brought some fresh legs to the attack, taking off Castro and replacing him with Ricky van Wolfswinkel, who just moments after coming on the pitch had a chance to shockingly tie the game up, but Bravo left the line to head the ball out of danger. Barcelona put all doubts to rest the following attack with Messi providing more magic, supplying a stunning through ball to Suarez who this time made no mistake, sending the ball over Adan's right leg and into the back of the net.
Shortly after the goal, Lucho made his second substitution, replacing Rakitić with Arda Turan. Moments later, Bravo appeared to be struggling with an apparent calf injury and he was taken off as a precaution. On his birthday, Marc-Andre ter Stegen took Bravo's place, seeing his first La Liga action since 26 September. During his short time on the pitch he wasn't called into action and Barcelona ran out deserved winners, dedicating the win to long-time Camp Nou announcer Manel Vich who passed away, retaking the league lead with two games left to play, the next one coming on Sunday against Espanyol.
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