Last night FC Barcelona took on seventh-place Real Betis and defeated them with an impressive, though slightly shaky, 4-2 scoreline. Betis pressed and attacked well, exposing the continuing frailties of Barcelona’s defense, but ultimately the blaugrana attack, led by Andres Iniesta and substitute Lionel Messi, proved to be too much for them.
After last week’s draw against Athletic Bilbao, Tito made it clear that this game was a must-win in order to extinguish any hope Real Madrid had of further closing the gap. Alves and Adriano were thus chosen over Montoya and Bartra, but it must be said that neither looked particularly great. Alves hit wayward crosses all game, while Adriano was caught too far forward several times and never looked comfortable in defense – though he did make some important tackles.
Betis began the game pressing very high up the field, and the Barça defense were clearly uncomfortable playing the ball out of the back under such pressure. Within the first minute and a half, Alba, Adriano, and Pinto had all misplaced their passes, and all it took was one poor clearance from Pinto for Betis to take advantage of Barça’s sloppiness. Song and Adriano were both caught badly out of position, and the ball trickled through for Dorlan Pabón to rush onto and calmly place into the net.
Barça came charging back immediately, using Alba and Alves heavily on the wings. Villa made excellent runs, but he was denied first by a sliding block from a Betis defender, then by the linesman who correctly flagged him offside for slightly mistiming his run behind Betis’s high line.
But it was Alexis who made the breakthrough in the ninth minute, when Tello and Alba’s work down the left-hand side freed up space for Iniesta to charge past two defenders and cross to the back post, where the Chilean beat his man to the ball and finished with a diving header.
For the remainder of the first half, Barça attacked well and created several chances, with Iniesta, Alexis, and Tello all producing great performances. But with Messi on the bench, it became apparent that Villa was not up to the task of being Barça’s focal point. First Alexis set him up on a counterattack at the top of the box, but instead of taking an extra touch into space, Villa hit a first-time shot tamely at Adrian. Then a beautiful lofted ball into the box from Iniesta found Xavi, whose delicate control set Villa perfectly up for a volley from 10 yards out, only for the Spanish topscorer to blast over the bar. Finally, Tello showed once again that even being predictable doesn’t matter if you’ve got raw pace, blowing by a Betis defender to the touchline, then cutting back perfectly to put the ball on a platter for Villa once again – but once again he hit it straight at Adrian when it looked easier to score.
Tello took matters into his own hands with a thunderous shot off the crossbar in the 40th minute from just outside the box, but it bounced on the goal-line, not over it. Instead it was Betis who would strike back with a long range blast of their own, as Rubén Pérez found acres of space, took a touch and cannoned an unstoppable shot past Pinto from 25 yards to go into halftime with a 1-2 lead.
At the start of the second half Messi began warming up, and perhaps it was the Camp Nou’s roar of anticipation that finally snapped Villa out of his slump in the 56th minute. Alexis did well to make room for Alves down the right, who produced one of his very few crosses on target this game in order to find Villa at the back post to nod in the equalizer. Villa’s fist-pump celebration said it all – it had been a frustrating game for him, but he came through in the end, right before being subbed off for Messi.
As has become the worrying routine, Messi’s arrival changed everything for Barça. Four minutes after his introduction, he took a free-kick outside the box and curled it delicately into the top-right corner of the goal. Adrián got a touch to it, but there was never a chance he could keep it out, as Barça took the lead at last.
Alexis began playing noticeably better with Messi’s introduction, and he was narrowly called offside a few minutes later after being played through on goal. Alexis had an excellent game, but he seems much more comfortable being the support player than having a goal-scoring burden himself. Unlike Pedro, who came into the first team when the goals were shared more equally, Alexis arrived at the club at the height of Messi’s absurd scoring records and seems to have learned a secondary role a little too well. However, with Messi on his confidence improved, and he produced several stepovers and a nice attempted chip over the keeper, which Adrián saved.
In the 69th minute Messi cracked an even better free kick off the corner of the crossbar and post, but in the 71st minute the team goal of the season arrived. Alexis played it to Messi at the top of the box, whose pass into Iniesta was gorgeously backheeled through the Betis defense to Alexis. Alexis took a good first touch to throw off the oncoming defender and thought to shoot, but did well to see that Messi had continued his bursting run around into the box. A simple pass across goal to the back post and an easy tap-in gave Barça a 4-2 lead and Messi his 46th goal of the season.
From there, the game was done and buried. Two of the night’s best performers, Alexis and Song, were subbed off to loud applause from the Camp Nou – inspiring to see, as both have been criticized quite harshly by fans when they struggled to adapt earlier in the season. Alexis has hit an excellent run of form at last in the last month, while Song is a top candidate for most improved player of the season in my eyes, having proved himself as an able replacement for Keita and an excellent deputy for Busquets.
Messi was unfortunate not to get his hat-trick after an excellent run with Iniesta in the dying minutes of the game, but Adrián saved his chip well. The Argentine showed a surprising amount of anger at the miss – with the game all but over and victory assured, perhaps this was an expression of frustration at having been injured and on the bench at such a difficult time for Barça in the past several weeks.
Overall, it was a good game from Barça that has all but clinched the Liga title. Defensive problems abound still – Piqué and Adriano had good moments but generally lacked confidence and composure, while Alba and Alves have not yet learned to balance their runs it seems, and were caught out of position repeatedly and gave away needless, clumsy fouls. Offensively, the team attacked well and with speed, but the lack of cohesive pressure off the ball when Betis transitioned out of defense continues to be something Vilanova surely needs to improve on for next season. For now, we are one win (or a Madrid loss/draw against Málaga this Wednesday) away from returning the Liga title to the Camp Nou once again.
Image Credit: Manu Fernandez – AP