A Lionel Messi double and a Jordi Figueras own goal ensured a shaky Barcelona beat Real Betis 3-1 on Saturday.
The Blaugrana went into the game looking for the three points that would keep them in touch with table-toppers Atletico Madrid, and they did so without Neymar, who was left on the bench, with Alexis and Pedro starting up front alongside Messi. The Verdiblancos meanwhile, wanted a win to keep alive their slight hopes of staying in the top division, and gave a start for Alteti loanee Leo Baptistao.
But it was the Andalusians who got off to the brighter start, pumping balls into the box from wide positions early on – the Catalans though, were more than equal to that gameplan and cleared well.
The first opportunity of the game however, went to the hosts, as Adriano laid in Xavi who forced Antonio Adan into a smart save.
And it wasn’t long before Tata Martino’s men asserted their dominance on the scoreboard. Alexis zig-zagged his way past several defenders before being brought down inside the area, and Messi was there to convert from the spot.
Gabriel Calderon’s side were struggling to rein in the Blaugrana’s attacking talent, and it was only some poor finishing from the hosts that meant the score wasn’t doubled. A cross from Adriano went across the six-yard box, but Dani Alves couldn’t tap in from the closest of close ranges.
The visitors really were offering nothing going forward, but managed to keep their disadvantage to just one goal despite wave after wave of Barca attacks. Adriano, Messi and Alexis all went close, but a mixture of wayward finishing and good goalkeeping kept the score close going into half-time.
After the break, and still the Camp Nou outfit kept pressing away for another goal. And it almost came with 50 minutes gone. A foul by Antonio Amaya on Messi resulted in a free kick, but the resulting effort from Xavi just scraped the top of the bar.
Betis weren’t deterred though, and finally upped their tempo on the hour mark. Pacey wingers Cedrick and Vadillo were both enjoying good runs in the wide positions, but their crosses couldn’t find the head of Baptistao, with Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano shepherding the Brazilian youngster well.
The bottom club were really coming forward now, and had two opportunities to even the score – unfortunately, both fell to Alfred N’Diaye though. The former Sunderland midfielder first forced Jose Pinto into a diving save, and then, from the resulting corner, the midfielder swiped an air-shot from just four yards out.
All their good work however was undone on 67 minutes when an Adriano pass hit the outstretched leg of Figueras, who watched as the ball flew past his own goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
The away team had nothing to lose now, and that attitude paid dividends immediately, as Ruben Castro barrelled his way into the Barca area, and fired a low shot under Pinto to give his men a glimmer hope.
But that optimism was extinguished with a few minutes to go when Juanfran gave away another penalty for a handball inside the area. Up stepped Messi, but the Argentine missed from the spot, only to slot home the rebound.
Barcelona 3-1 Real Betis
Scorers: Messi pen 15, 86 (B), Figueras OG 67 (B); Ruben Castro 69 (RB)
Barcelona: Pinto; Alves, Mascherano, Bartra, Adriano; Busquets, Xavi (Song 88), Iniesta (Cesc 79); Pedro (Neymar 79), Messi, Alexis
Real Betis: Adán; Juanfran, Amaya, Jordi, Juan Carlos, N’Diaye, Lolo Reyes, Nono, Cedrick (Castro 62), Vadillo (Molina 62), Baptistao