Barcelona survived a tough start to the match against the always difficult Real Betis, but Lionel Messi once again took things into his own hands and scored three goals to see off their challengers. Barcelona would also get a goal from Luis Suarez while Loren Moron would score the consolidation goal for the home side.
In a thunderous atmosphere at the Benito Villamarin, Ernesto Valverde was looking to increase the La Liga lead after Atletico Madrid’s loss yesterday, sending out a powerful starting eleven. The defense was up to full strength, though there was a surprise in midfield as all of Sergio Busquets, Arthur, Ivan Rakitić and Arturo Vidal started, while Philippe Coutinho was left on the bench.
Barcelona looked to step on the ball from the opening whistle, but Betis like to play with possession as well. And it was the hosts who would threaten first, after a quick through ball to former Barcelona player Cristian Tello, but Sergi Roberto made a brilliant defensive play to prevent Tello from getting a shot off.
Betis are seeming always a tough nut to crack, though there are blowouts mixed in as well, like last season’s manita at this very stadium and this was shaping up to be a very tough one for the Catalans as well. In the 13th minute the hosts threatened again, this time Andrés Guardado sent a cross into the middle where Jese escaped Gerard Pique’s marking, but the former Real Madrid man couldn’t redirect the ball on goal.
Oftentimes Barcelona looked very uncomfortable on the pitch amid constant pressure from Betis, and as a result the hosts enjoyed more possession than their counterparts. But in the 17th minute Arthur won a free kick in a perfect spot on a rare Barcelona attack. Naturally, Messi stepped up to take it and promptly sent Barcelona into the lead. It was a perfect shot by Messi into the goalkeeper’s corner, and even though Pau López wasn’t cheating the other way he still couldn’t stop the perfectly placed shot.
Barcelona were in the lead, even though they were trailing the possession battle 57%-43% after twenty minutes. Five minutes after scoring, Barcelona looked to add to the lead, but Vidal’s brilliant diagonal pass wasn’t controlled well enough by Roberto to lead to a scoring chance. Moments later, Vidal won a free kick a couple yards deeper than from where Messi scored just minutes earlier. Messi once again took responsibility for the kick, but this time Lopez was able to make the save.
The back and forth action continued and Betis created their best look the very next minute. Barcelona’s defense was scrambling and nobody was able to prevent Tello from sending a perfect cross to the far post that was just waiting for the slightest of taps to lead to a goal, but Jordi Alba made a crucial clearance. Betis were piling on the pressure while Barcelona couldn’t take control of the ball. Betis’ pressure led to a couple half chances, but Marc-Andre ter Stegen wasn’t called into action.
As time went on, the possession numbers were tilting even more into Betis’ favor. After the half-hour it was 60%-40% and Betis were leading in the shot department as well, to the tune of 6-2, with the only two Barcelona shots coming from Messi free-kicks. The hosts were playing with more energy and creativity, while Barcelona were clearly not having the best of times on the pitch. The fast-paced play continued up until the 35th minute when a collision between Pique and Aïssa Mandi led to a clash of heads and a longer stoppage of play, but both would be able to continue after receiving treatment.
Barcelona would create their first scoring chance from open play in the 40th minute. Ter Stegen sent Barcelona a quick counter with a long kick, and after a couple passes, the crucial one coming from Vidal to Messi, the Argentine and Luis Suarez were on a two-on-one. Messi supplied Suarez with a perfect pass for a golden chance, but maybe the chance was too easy for the Uruguayan as the shot he put on goal was far too weak to lead to a goal. The final minutes of the half belonged to the Catalans as moments later they would threaten again, but before Rakitić could tap Alba’s cross in the ball was cleared away for a corner kick. Barcelona would create a half-chance from it, but the score wouldn’t change. It would change, however, on the very last play of the half. Messi and Suarez were the main protagonist, with the latter finding the former with a brilliant back-heel pass, leaving Messi with a straightforward finish to double Barcelona’s lead.
After the restart Barcelona would look to continue where they left off before the break, but their opening opportunity went begging as Suarez sent his shot wide into the side netting. After the early chance from Barcelona, Betis would return to the offensive and quickly pin their opponents deep, but the Catalans were able to hold them to the perimeter.
With Barcelona looking to press the ball-carrier higher up the pitch, the frantic pace of first half dropped a bit, though chances continued on both sides, the best two coming for Barcelona around the one-hour mark, but Suarez missed them both. The first one came on a tough-angle where he had a wide open Alba in front for the tap in, but his shot missed way wide. Moments later he was sent one-on-one with Lopez after a misplaced clearance by the Betis defense, but missed the far post by inches.
But after missing two golden opportunities, Suarez made up for it in the 64th minute – from the toughest chance of them all. Going all alone against four defenders Suarez went on a Messi-like slalom run before powering the ball into the back of the net to add to the Catalans’ lead. With the match all but decided, Valverde started looking to his bench and first took off Arthur and replaced him with Nelson Semedo.
Even though there were 25 minutes left to play, the remaining time was a mere formality. Betis were playing with far less urgency now that they were down by three while Barcelona often looked to slow down play. The Catalans, however, did have a great chance to add to their lead in the 74th minute, after Roberto found Suarez inside the area, but the Uruguayan’s low shot was well saved by Lopez.
Betis continued to attack, but Barcelona were able to fend them off with relative ease. That is until the 82nd minute when Alba made the mistake of redirecting Tello’s cross right into the path of Diego Lainez. The substitute found fellow substitute Loren on the edge of the area from where the striker sent the ball into the back of the net to make things interesting. But Barcelona would set things straight just two minutes later. Immediately after conceding Barcelona went on the offensive a won a couple corner kicks, but the goal came from open play. Rakitić found Messi on the edge of the area from where the Argentine beat Lopez, who was two yards from his goal-line, with an audacious chip to complete the hat-trick. The brilliance of Messi was rewarded by the Real Betis fans who gave Messi a well-deserved standing ovation – a rare sight for opposing players at the Benito Villamarin.
The final moments of the game delivered some bad news as Suarez slipped awkwardly, leaving him clutching his ankle and he was quickly substituted by Coutinho. Carles Alena also joined play as he took Rakitić’s spot on the pitch. Three minutes were added on as the good atmosphere continued despite Betis losing. The final play almost led to another goal for Barcelona, but Messi was denied by the post after a nice set-up from Roberto.
The international break is coming up so Barcelona will get some time off, but with over a dozen playing for their national teams there will be little time off for the players. The Catalans will return to the pitch on 30 March when they will take on their city rivals.