It was an evening that began with a demonstration of respect and ended with a slap in the face. Barcelona opened their La Liga encounter with Real Betis by giving them a guard of honour but their late winner virtually ended Betis’ chances of a top four finish.
That won’t matter a whole pile for the Seville outfit. Their priority this season has always been winning the Copa del Rey and they achieved that two weeks ago at La Cartuja in their own city. This was their first game back at the Benito Villamarín since that magical night and it was a celebration, helped by the stunning Saturday evening sunshine that served to close out a riotous week dominated by the Feria de Sevilla.
Once the game actually began, however, celebration turned to frustration. The opening hour of the encounter was marked by a lack of quality and rhythm – referee Mateu Lahoz seemed determined to break up the play for even the most minor of infractions and that prevented the contest from real fluidity.
But then, as so often happens, a moment of individual quality changed the tone. In this instance that individual quality wore Barcelona’s number ten shirt – Ansu Fati, still making his comeback from a serious knee injury, took to the field in the 75th minute and scored in the 76th, a clinical finish from outside the area that left Betis goalkeeper Rui Silva wrong-footed and found the bottom corner. That woke both sides up.
Because just three minutes later another La Masia product had his name on the scoresheet – but this one played for the hosts. Marc Bartra scored from a corner kick to get Betis back on level terms and set up an interesting final ten minutes that actually only reached a climax four minutes into injury time.
That was when Dani Alves floated a ball out left from the right flank to find Jordi Alba, who set himself expertly before unleashing a rasping volley past Silva and into the back of the net. The Catalan wheeled away in jubilant celebration before being embraced by his teammates while Xavi Hernández and his technical staff danced in joy on the touchline.
Because this was a significant moment for Barcelona in what’s been a trying season. They needed a point to secure Champions League football for next year and managed to secure all three, registering their second consecutive victory after the post-Eintracht Frankfurt wobble that threatened to damage the positive momentum earned since Xavi took over from Ronald Koeman toward the tail end of 2021. They’ll now hope to close out their campaign in style and lock down second place before switching focus to 2022/23.
As for Betis, defeat leaves them three points behind Atletico Madrid in fifth. With three games left to play they still have a chance to catch Los Rojiblancos – especially should Diego Simeone’s men lose tonight’s Madrid Derby.
But it felt like an opportunity missed. Having already secured a place in next season’s Europa League through their Copa triumph, however, they’ll compartmentalise their disappointment and seek to finish out what’s been an excellent campaign as strongly as possible. Manuel Pellegrini has built a strong side at the Villamarín and they can look forward to next season with as much optimism and confidence as ever.