Barcelona emerged victorious from their meeting with Real Betis at the Estadio Benito Villamarin in Sevilla on Sunday, courtesy of a Ferran Torres hat-trick and a goal by Joao Felix. Former Real Madrid midfielder Isco Alarcon netted twice for the home side.
For Betis, Rui Silva was in goal, with veteran Sokratis Papastathopoulos joining German Pezzella in the heart of defence, while Hector Bellerin and Abner covered their flanks. Johnny Cardoso and Marc Roca paired up in the middle of the park, while Isco pulled the strings from his No.10 role. Wingers Luiz Henrique and Assane Diao supported striker Willian Jose.
Chadi Riad and Youssouf Sabaly are on international duty, and coach Manuel Pellegrini couldn’t count on Aitor Ruibal, William Carvalho, Ayoze Perez, Juan Miranda, Guido Rodriguez, or former Barcelona duo of Claudio Bravo and Marc Bartra, all through various injury problems.
Barcelona have no players absent through tournaments either in Africa or Asia, but they did have a number of injury-related absences for this match. Those are namely Joao Cancelo, Andreas Christensen, Inigo Martinez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Marcos Alonso, Raphinha and Gavi.
With Inaki Pena standing in for Ter Stegen in goal, 17-year-old centre-back Pau Cubrasi started alongside Ronald Araujo. Alejandro Balde was on the left, Jules Kounde on the right. Ilkay Gundogan, Frenkie De Jong and Pedri formed a finely blended unit, experience-wise, in the middle of the park. Upfront, Robert Lewandowski led the line, with Torres on his left and Lamine Yamal on his right.
It was Betis who threatened first, just three minutes into the game when Isco produced a wonderful chip over the Barcelona defence for Henrique to latch onto, but the winger’s toe-poke took the ball over the bar and onto the roof of the net. Barcelona had a very similar chance with an identical outcome 10 minutes later, with De Jong as the creator and Pedri as the would-be scorer after a smart run from deep.
And then came minute 21, when with lots of luck, as a blocked cross-field pass somehow found its way down an unguarded channel for Pedri to chase. The 21-year-old took full advantage of the situation, burst forward and simply squared it for Torres at the perfect moment for a simple tap-in.
But luck leveled itself out in the 38th minute, when Yamal cut inside from the right and fired onto the far post. Just as it helped Barcelona to go up, so it now helped Betis to stay just one goal down. In the final minute of the first half, Lewandowski briefly believed he had doubled Barcelona’s lead after being set up by Torres, but the flag went up for offside and the goal was ruled out.
The Catalans intensified their pressure on the Betis goal after the break and it took them less than three minutes to score again. This time it was Yamal who broke past his man down the right and lifted a cross that somehow hit the post and bounced towards the penalty spot. Torres was on-hand to wrap things up, and Xavi’s team seemed on their way to a relatively comfortable victory.
However, Betis weren’t going to just give up. They responded immediately and started putting Pena under significant pressure at every opportunity, and eventually, in the 56th minute, Isco latched onto a rebound at some 13 yards or so and blasted a half-volley under the bar. The stadium exploded – the home team were back in the game.
Just three minutes later, Isco put the ball in the net again. There was no joy as the linesman raised his flag for offside, but the referee got the signal telling him of an ongoing VAR check.
It was an unusual situation. Henrique lifted a pass over the Barcelona defence, and it was chased by both Isco and substitute Borja Inglesias. At that moment, neither of them was offside, but it looked initially as if Inglesias touched the ball first before it reached Isco, and at that point, Isco was clearly offside. However, the VAR check apparently established that Inglesias actually failed to touch the ball, which obviously means Isco was NOT offside. The goal was allowed to stand, and from two goals up, Barcelona were shockingly pulled back to 2-2.
Henrique came very close to turning the whole game around with a powerful shot from range in the 76th minute which missed the target by a yard.
But when Henrique couldn’t do it, Barcelona retook the lead just as the 90th minute began. Gundogan started the move with a forward pass through the middle, and Felix played a one-two with Torres before hitting the ball with perfect precision, with the outside of his right foot from the edge of the box, beyond the reach of Rui Silva and into the bottom corner.
As it always happens with last-gasp winners, one team exploded with joy, the other with great sorrow. But if the home players and fans thought this would spell the end of their problems, they were wrong. Understandably, Betis went all out in search of a stoppage-time equalizer, but it left them quite open at the back. In the 92nd minute, Barcelona won the ball and Yamal whipped a nicely measured pass into the path of Torres, who broke through, rounded Rui Silva, and slotted home to set the final score.
Despite the fact that Betis had only 35% of possession, they took more shots than Barcelona, 14-11 in total, 5-4 on target, indicating a far more direct style of play, rather than setting up a bunker against the mighty Catalans. They certainly lacked luck in this match, but Barcelona still probably deserved their victory.
At this point, Girona appear fully capable of going all the way against Real Madrid and Barcelona in the title race. They still lead the way with 52 points. Real are close on 51 and with a game in hand. After this victory, Barcelona are on 44 in third place, with the same number of matches played as Real (20).
Xavi’s team obviously cannot afford to drop too many points between now and the end of the season – there is a lot of ground they need to make up and they need to do it as soon as possible, or the top two might move out of their reach.
On the other hand, this defeat has not only left a sour taste for Betis, but it has also made a significant dent in their hopes of qualifying for Europe next season. It’s far from over, of course, but right now, they’re in ninth place with 31 points from 21 matches, the same as Las Palmas in eight, one less than Valencia in seventh, four less than Real Sociedad in sixth, and seven less than Atletico Madrid in fifth who have two games in hand on all of them and maintain a good chance of breaking back into the top four.
Barcelona will return to their Champions League campaign next month with the first leg of the round-of-16 clash with Serie A champions Napoli, but before that, they’ll face Bilbao in the quarter-finals of the Copa del Rey, and play no less than five La Liga games – against Villarreal, Osasuna, Alaves, Granada and Celta Vigo.
Betis, on the other hand, take part in the Europa Conference League where they face Dinamo Zagreb, and before that, they’ll need to get as many points as possible against Mallorca, Getafe and Cadiz.