Real Betis Balompie missed a chance to tighten their grip on La Liga’s fourth UEFA Champions League qualification berth when they let a lead slip and had to fight to hold on for a 1-1 draw at home to erratic Athletic Bilbao on Monday.
Under charismatic coach Pepe Mel, Betis have made one of their best ever starts and they stay three points clear of fifth-placed Andalusian rivals Malaga, who drew 1-1 at home to RC Celta de Vigo on Saturday.
Bilbao have failed to reproduce the form that propelled them to the final of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey last season and their night got off to the worst possible start when goalkeeper Gorka Iraizoz felled Salva Sevilla just inside the penalty area in the opening minute.
In-form Betis forward Ruben Castro stepped up and stroked his spot-kick high into the net for his 12th goal of the campaign.
In an entertaining match, with both teams playing attractive, attacking soccer, a number of chances were squandered before Ander Herrera sent Aritz Aduriz clear four minutes before halftime and he conjured a clever chip to lift the ball over onrushing Betis goalkeeper Adrian into the net.
It was also Aduriz’s 12th of the season, and he and Castro are the top Spanish marksmen in La Liga.
Argentina international Lionel Messi of Barcelona is way out in front on 29 goals, with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Colombian Radamel Falcao of Atletico Madrid both on 18.
Bilbao, who finished the match on top and almost snatched a late winner, have struggled after losing Spain international Javi Martinez to Bayern Munich in the close season and are 14th on 22 points. Betis have 35, three behind third-placed Real Madrid, 5-0 winners at Valencia on Sunday.
“They got the penalty right after kickoff and that disrupted our plans a bit, but I think the team showed it knew how to react,” Aduriz said in an interview with Spanish broadcaster Marca TV. “We made a big effort and I think we deserved more out of the game, but the ball wouldn’t go in.”