The encounter between Barça and Betis was singled out by culés as one of the most important in the la Liga season, since it has always been said that Liga titles are won on difficult fields such as this one. An away match, small ground, loud crowd. In fact, Pep Guardiola’s Barça had never won at Betis’s field. So everyone was expecting to see a hard fought game.
It was, indeed, a tough match, but it started in a very different way. Barça dominated the first 45 minutes, displaying all their repertoire of passes and control, especially led by Iniesta. It seemed to be one of those games where goals are scored quickly, the game becomes more open, and Barça crushes the other side. But things started to turn when Cesc got injured, even earlier than both goals. Cesc has been instrumental in giving more fluidity to the Barça midfield, adding another dimension to it, the vertical. His substitution changed things in midfield, but also helped the forward line. Messi seemed to be alone against the world, accompanied by Iniesta sometimes, and not by Pedro, who never found himself on the field. Alexis came in, and suddenly goals arrived. He helped Messi to get off his marker, opened up the space, and we were 0-1 up in 15 minutes. What Alexis did on Sunday is probably the biggest reason FC Barcelona signed him (not necessarily for goals), however it’s true that he needs to shoot once in a while, not pass all the time. The second goal came after a cool and quick collective play that was finished by Iniesta assisting Messi with a beautiful pass, also with Alexis collaborating in distracting Betis’s central defense.
After the beautiful second goal, Barça slowed down a bit, which helped the local side to step into the game. They started by cutting off connections between Xavi and the rest of midfield, successfully at times, as well as being much more attentive to Barça losing the ball. Their fast counter attack helped them tremendously to score the 1-2, when Ruben Castro (one of La Liga’s top scorers) found Barça’s defense not coordinated, allowing him to be clear in front of Victor Valdés to score.
In the second half, Betis was the team that has possibly attacked Barça the best in a long time. Pepe Mel’s boys were quick and always on top of every Barça player. Our midfield lost a lot of disputed balls, mainly because Betis’s players caused them to do so. They cut the connection between Busquets and Xavi, and that will always hurt Barça. Additionally, they focused on Busquets to prevent him from receiving the ball, from attack and defense, and they also succeeded in preventing his fluent communication with the centre backs. Hence, everything was much more difficult for Piqué and Mascherano, who subbed in for Puyol (for precautionary reasons). Piqué did a fantastic job preventing Betis’s second goal, while Mascherano seemed a bit lost a times. Both Jordi Alba and Adriano were often caught out of place by the quick local players, who did a fantastic job getting into Barça’s area by the wings.
Lio Messi and Alexis didn’t see much action in the second half, apart from a couple of nice counter-attacks. Thiago came in late in the game, which helped the blaugrana to have a bit more control. However, the action was still on Barça’s goal, before switching to Betis’s goal, all within seconds. All in all, this was a fantastic game to watch if you are a neutral observer. For a Barça fan, it was a series of multiple little heart-attacks.
Who knows if with Cesc on the pitch the midfield would have been different and Betis would have had to control their game more. Probably. But Sunday’s game showed us, culés, that no matter how many points we are clear from Madrid, we will win La Liga by winning on fields like the Villamarín. There are some things to work on, such as the defense when Puyol is out (sometimes it seemed that only Piqué was defending), as well as giving Villa a chance. Pedro is far, far from his accustomed level, and he doesn’t seem to be improving. Maybe it’s time to trust el Guaje for a change, and give Alexis more freedom to move and shoot, and not only help Messi but the whole team.
Picture Credit: Jorge Guerrero/AFP