Lionel Messi on Sunday provided a hat-trick of assists as Barcelona ended their turbulent week with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Real Betis Balompie to stay in touch with Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Madrid’s 4-1 win at CA Osasuna earlier in the day put pressure on Barca to respond, only for Betis to twice lead at the Benito Villamarin through a penalty from Sergio Canales and brilliant solo effort from Nabil Fekir.
Yet both times Barcelona hit back, as Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets pulled them level, before Clement Lenglet headed in with 18 minutes left, all three goals teed up by Messi.
Fekir and Lenglet were then sent off in a frantic contest by the end of which Barca had the victory they so desperately needed following a difficult few days for the club.
Messi had put himself at the heart of a political spat this week by publicly taking exception to comments made by Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal, who suggested the players were the cause of the decision to sack Ernesto Valverde last month.
Barcelona were then beaten by Athletic Bilbao and knocked out of the Copa del Rey before the semi-finals for the first time in 10 years.
“In Bilbao we played well, but they knocked us out,” Barca coach Quique Setien said. “This win will give us motivation and extra energy for the future.”
To make matters worse last week, winger Ousmane Dembele suffered another hamstring injury, which is likely to keep him out for the rest of the season, while centerback Samuel Umtiti appeared in court for alleged damages to a rented villa.
It meant defeat against Betis was unthinkable, particularly for Setien, who could ill-afford another setback against the team he managed for two years.
Instead, Barca turned the tide, with a chaotic performance that might have been punished by better opponents, but that keeps them three points behind Real Madrid, who had earlier won at a canter in Pamplona.
Gareth Bale returned to the starting lineup after four matches out and a fortuitous deflection meant he assisted Isco’s equalizer after Unai Garcia had given Osasuna a surprise lead.
Sergio Ramos then headed Madrid in front, before substitutes Lucas Vazquez and Luka Jovic made the scoreline more emphatic.
“I’m pleased with all the players and what they’re doing,” Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “It’s very good to stay in front.”
Barca’s exit in the Copa del Rey overshadowed Madrid’s own shock defeat at home by Real Sociedad in the quarter-finals, a loss that brought a dramatic end to their 21-match unbeaten run.
However, Zidane would have been relieved to see his team swiftly back on track with a performance full of the kind of resilience that Real’s rivals have so lacked.
Bale also keeps coming back under Zidane and the 30-year-old had chances to add a goal to a spirited display before going off to a decent reception from the away support in the second half.
It was only his third appearance since the turn of the year.
“People want there to be a problem, but there isn’t one,” Zidane said. “He did well, offensively and defensively he gave everything. He was a bit short of fitness at the end, so he came off. We know the player he is and that he will give a lot from now until the end of the season. Let’s count on Gareth.”
Eden Hazard is yet to return after recovering from a foot fracture. Real play Manchester City in the UEFA Champions League in less than two weeks.
“It wasn’t the time today again and I hope we’ll see him next week,” Zidane said.
Elsewhere, Sevilla lost ground in the race for the top four as they conceded two late goals to lose 2-1 at struggling RC Celta de Vigo.
Sociedad defeated Bilbao 2-1, while bottom side RCD Espanyol edged RCD Mallorca 1-0 to join them on 18 points.
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