It was not going to plan for Barcelona. Following their humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich on Wednesday evening, a packed Camp Nou was expecting a reaction from their team. But, barely two minutes had elapsed when Real Betis surprisingly went ahead. The home crowd’s fears appeared allayed however, when Alexis Sanchez’s diving header put his side back on par following some great work by Andres Iniesta. Yet, Barca still went into the break a goal down following a sizzling long range effort from Ruben Perez.
Lionel Messi did not start and despite trailing by a goal, Tito Vilanova resisted the temptation to bring on the Argentine at half-time. But, less than 10 minutes into the second period and with the score-line unchanged, Tito had Messi getting ready to enter the fray.
Just as the officials were readying to make the substitution however, David Villa brought Barca level with well-taken header. But, Villa was still the one taken off for Messi and deservedly so. The former Valencia man wasted a host of chances in the opening period including a gilt-edged miss when Xavi Hernandez set him up for a volley on the six-yard box. He should have had at least one if not three goals in the first 45 minutes.
Still, it seemed a little unjust to bring off Villa just as he finished celebrating his goal. But, it did not take Messi long to make his presence known and the departure of Villa forgotten. Indeed, just the sight of him warming up set off a deafening applause from the home crowd. By the time Messi actually jogged on to the field, the atmosphere in the stadium had completely changed – his mere presence enough to do so - four minutes later he showed just why this is so.
Dani Alves was adjudged to have been fouled outside of the box and up stepped Messi to curve home a perfectly executed free-kick. Barca were in the lead for the first time thanks to a moment of magic from their star man.
It was not just the crowd that Messi’s introduction into the game lifted. His presence on the field seemed to lift his teammates. Barca were again playing some of that slick pass-and-move football that has made them so successful and attractive to watch in recent years and he was at the centre of all of it. Again, it felt like one was watching the ‘real’ Barcelona, not that poor imitation that was witnessed against Bayern four days prior. Despite going ahead, it still felt as if another goal was on the way and it almost came nine minutes later.
And, of course, it was Messi who came close. Lining up another free-kick this time from the other side of the field, his attempt had Adrian beaten, but not the crossbar. Still, the air of inevitability for a fourth remained and it came two minutes later.
And, of course, it was Messi. Rather than a piece of individual brilliance, this time it was collective brilliance. An exquisite flick from Iniesta sent Alexis through on goal and the Chilean squared it for Messi who had the simplest of finishes.
Recently when Vilanova was asked by a journalist about Barcelona’s dependence on Messi, he smartly responded: “Who would not rely on a player like Messi?” And he had a point. Barca’s dependence on him may be their biggest weakness, but, it is their biggest strength at the same time and as we have seen, as long as he is scoring 46 goals per season – his current tally – it works. Messi’s goals have put Barca on the brink of another League title.
While Barca fans were bowing to their saviour, Real Madrid fans were not exactly showing the same kind of adoration towards Cristiano Ronaldo, instead they focused their attention on Jose Mourinho, whom they booed and jeered. Amidst all the dramas surrounding Los Blancos, Ronaldo still got on with it and did what he does best – scoring goals.
The Portuguese netted a double – both scored with his head – to take his season total to 33 goals in La Liga and 53 goals in total across just 52 matches. Worth noting, Ronaldo’s second was his 200th goal for the capital giants and incredibly he has needed just 196 games to reach this milestone.
Across in La Coruna meanwhile, Madrid’s city rivals Atletico Madrid secured their return to the Champions League for next season despite only mustering a draw against Deportivo. Both sides cancelled each other out at the Riazor in a game that the less said, the better. Quality football was scarce and even scarcer were chances on goal. But, Diego Simeone will not care, his side will be back amongst Europe’s elite next season.