Real Betis has played well away from home this year and appeared to be catching Barcelona at the right time to upend the La Liga hopefuls, but Lionel Messi's triumphant entrance gave Barca the momentum it needed to pull off a 4-2 victory at Camp Nou on Sunday.
In easily two of the most shocking opening minutes of the La Liga season, Betis came out of the gates with a second-minute strike from Dorlan Pabon that set the tone for the early going and provided the earliest goal scored against Barca at home since 2007 (via Barcastuff):
It didn’t take long for the tide to turn, however.
Alexis Sanchez took a cross from Andres Iniesta in the ninth minute for a header in the corner to even the score at 1-1, capping off one of the most exciting starts we’ve seen in recent contests. It was Iniesta’s 15th assist this season (via Opta Sports):
Barca continued to apply pressure in the following minutes, but failed to capitalize on a couple good opportunities. The pressure resulted in a break for Real Betis, though, and nearly made the most of the chance in the 15th minute with a Jorge Molina header that just missed the mark.
Neither club was able to sustain much momentum following Barca’s equalizer, however. Defense waivered early in this contest, and the result was a back-and-forth exchange with pressure changing hands at every turn.
Xavi seemed to settle in and take control as the pace slowed, though. With Lionel Messi out of action, the midfielder was able to keep Betis on its toes and direct the action in the center of Barcelona’s attack. The result was several scoring chances in the 22nd and 23rd minutes, but David Villa was unable to capitalize on his opportunities and the score remained deadlocked at 1-1 (via Corbett Sports):
Villa’s troubles continued in the subsequent minutes, missing on several attempts that could have swung the tide in favor of Barca. Blaugrana continued to put the pressure on their opponents with relative ease, but couldn’t manage to find the net and turn the screws on Betis.
And in turn, Betis took advantage of Barca’s missed opportunities with a 42nd-minute goal with a beautiful strike from Ruben Perez to pull ahead 2-1. Blaugrana let their opponents hang around, and the result was a momentum-shifting goal that changed the entire feel of the early action (via Barcelona Fans):
As Ben Hayward noted on Twitter between halves, the first 45 minutes were not kind to Barcelona, and its play was well below what is expected of the potential La Liga champions:
Messi’s absence was certainly felt in the opening frame, but Barca is a strong enough squad to neutralize Betis without its best player—but it certainly didn’t show in the early going.
The second half started sloppy for both clubs, but it didn’t take long for Villa to redeem his early woes and bring the score back to even at 2-2. In the 54th minute, the striker found the net with his second header of the season, and once again, Barca grabbed hold of the momentum.
Villa’s goal made way for Messi to make a dramatic entrance, replacing the striker following the equalizer (via FC Barcelona FI):
And of course, there was little doubt who would be next to score. Just five minutes after Villa’s redeeming goal, Messi responded in turn with a tremendous free kick that gave Barca a 3-2 lead in the 59th minute, setting a record in the process (as noted by Barcastuff):
Messi’s late arrival was exactly what Barca needed to break the match open. His fresh legs proved to be the deciding factor as he scored yet again in the 71st minute (via Barcelona’s official Twitter feed):
Real Betis may have been knocking on the door in the first half, but Messi made sure to deadbolt it in short order. As well as Barca’s attack was playing without the superstar, it found a whole new level with Messi in the contest.
The remainder of the match was a formality by the time Messi’s second goal found the net. Barcelona continued to overwhelm its opponents on the attack and gave Betis very little chance to even set up an attempt at the other end. By the time play expired, there was little question of who made the biggest impact on this contest.
With the win, Barcelona is in position to take the La Liga title after failing to notch a victory in any of its previous three contests. It was a much needed victory and one that serves to highlight how dangerous the club can be when Messi is on the pitch.
David Villa: C
Villa was presented several quality scoring chances in the first half and failed to convert when Barca needed him most. It was a mostly disappointing performance from the striker, and it highlighted just how valuable Messi is to Blaugrana’s entire offense.
The 31-year-old made up for his first-half blunders with a 54th-minute scoring strike, however, bringing Barca back within striking distance of taking the lead as Messi came on in relief. It’s easy to fault Villa for his early woes, but he did enough to make up for them with his second-half header to earn a marginal grade.
Ruben Perez: B
Perez’s 42nd-minute strike was a thing of beauty—one of few in Betis’ favor. He did his best to turn the tide, but the momentum was hard to sustain, especially with halftime approaching.
The opening frame left Barca looking somewhat shell-shocked given the amount of opportunities it failed to capitalize on. Like the rest of his club, Perez was unable to duplicate his first-half performance, but he did his part in keeping it close in the early going.
Dorlan Pabon: B
Betis was simply overmatched in this contest, but Pabon did his best to get his squad in the lead in the opening minutes. His second-minute goal kept this match from turning into an early blowout and helped his club to a lead that would remain intact into the second half.
Pabon didn’t do much in the ensuing minutes of the match, but neither did the rest of his club. He couldn’t have done much more against a Barca squad that attacked ferociously throughout the match.
Lionel Messi: A+
What can be said for Messi that hasn’t already been said? The world’s best footballer made his presence felt immediately upon entering the match with two crucial goals that put Betis away for good.
He wasn’t particularly flashy in doing so, but Messi’s goals highlighted his impact on Barca’s attack. There isn’t a better player on the planet, and he proved that in his first 20 minutes of action.