Barcelona had a ‘ghost goal’ wrongly ruled out as they failed to close the gap on Real Madrid in an thrilling 1-1 draw with Real Betis on Sunday.
Gerard Pique and Denis Suarez were Barca’s only survivors in defence and midfield as the Catalans had one eye on the Copa del Rey. Betis, for their part, were bolstered by the return of Aissa Mandi in defence after the Algerian’s unsuccessful participation at the Africa Cup of Nations.
Betis wasted no time in trying to exploit the visitors’ lack of a ball-winner in the middle of the park, although the first chance fell to Lionel Messi. The Argentine was found at Antonio Adan’s near post, but his close-range finish was blocked for a corner.
Riza Durmisi, the Betis left-back who had been linked with Liverpool, was then released down the left, but his cutback missed Ruben Castro by a whisker.
A mix-up in La Blaugrana’s defence saw Jeremy Mathieu play the ball out wide to Lucas Digne, who was immediately pickpocketed. Castro picked up the pieces, but his point-blank strike was pushed away by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The pressure showed no signs of abating as Dani Ceballos powered a drive towards Ter Stegen's top left, although the goalkeeper showed fine reflexes to tip the ball around the post.
The lack of midfield protection exposed Barca’s backline, and Castro would’ve beaten the German goalkeeper if his shot from Durmisi’s drilled cross back into the box hit the target. Instead, the striker snatched at the ball.
Indeed, Barca had to wait until towards the end of the first half to trouble Adan as Digne played a one-two down the left before finding Messi, who released Neymar. However, the Brazilian’s close-range finish was parried away by the custodian.
Suarez proceeded to shape himself up for a shot with only Adan to beat, but Mandi threw himself into an inch-perfect, last-ditch tackle on the Uruguayan.
Aleix Vidal looked to give Barca an early lead in the second half, the right-back unmarked as he ghosted into Betis’ penalty area to meet an angled ball at the back post, but his half-volley went just wide.
Vidal’s miss acted as a wake-up call for Betis, who quickly began overrunning Barca in midfield and ensured the supply links to MSN were cut off.
Ter Stegen then risked embarrassment as he ran out of the Barca box with the ball but was quickly dispossessed by Castro, whose lob fails to hit the target.
Lucho brought on Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto in a bid to stretch the play and override the midfield battle, but their introductions were preceded by Ceballos and Castro both hitting the woodwork.
Betis were ultimately rewarded for their pressure as Ter Stegen’s punch fell straight to Alegria, who knocked the ball past the goalkeeper at his near post.
At the other end, Messi’s defence-splitting passes found Vidal down the right, but both of the former’s crosses were cleared off the line by Mandi. However, the defender was a yard over the line when he went to scramble away Alba’s scuffed finish.
Castro then had a glorious chance to put the game to bed as he emerged one-on-one with Ter Stegen, but his shot was straight at the glovesman.
It was left to Messi and Suarez to conjure up a late equaliser. Matias Nahuel lost the ball to the No 10 just outside the Betis box, and the latter threaded through his strike partner for a side-footed finish to ease some of the injustice.
Real Betis 1-1 Barcelona
Alegria 75 (RB) Suarez 90 (B)
Real Betis: Adan; Pezzella, Mandi, Tosca; Piccini, Petros (Navarro 86), Pardo (Donk 69), Ceballos, Durmisi; Alegria (Nahuel 85), Castro
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Vidal, Pique, Mathieu, Digne (Alba 68); Denis (Gomes 59), Rakitic, Arda (Sergi 68); Messi, Suarez, Neymar
Referee: Hernandez Hernandez