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Barcelona’s hosting of Real Betis on Wednesday marked the Blaugrana’s first La Liga match since capturing the Club World Cup title on December 20th. Though the Catalans left European shores in possession of first place in the Primera, Atletico Madrid managed to snatch the top-spot away from them earlier in the day by defeating Rayo Vallecano 2-0. This, of course, meant that Luis Enrique’s side would have virtually no time to settle back into their Liga life before the all-too-familiar sky-high expectations would again take center stage.
It makes sense. After all, what’s left to do after returning from Japan with your sixth major trophy in 2015 than to, well, do some more winning. That’s what burden looks like at the top.
If you’re Betis, however, this is supposedly the best time to catch a team like Barcelona: fresh off of holiday, or in this case, the holidays. With the egg nog still under the expiration date, the hope is that the opposing players’ minds are off in a winter wonderland. It’d be reasonable to expect such miscues from regular humans, sure, but maybe a bit naive to expect it from these Catalan warlocks.
Wednesday’s affair wasn’t a gimme for Barcelona, although the 4-0 scoreline might suggest otherwise. To be fair, the Beticos stifled the Blaugrana for much of the first half, even producing the better of the early goalscoring chances.
The game began to tilt on one of the more bizarre penalty situations you’re likely to see on a top-flight football pitch.
As Barca pressed the opposition’s 18-yard-box, Sergi Busquets played a curling lob pass to a centrally-positioned Lionel Messi, who, while waiting for the ball’s arrival, was clobbered in the head by the out-rushing Adan, who convincingly punched the ball away from danger. The challenge, though brutal to watch as the Flea’s skull jolted, seemed fair enough. Referee Inaki Garrido disagreed, however, and the penalty was awarded.
As if that wasn’t enough of a fiasco, the ensuing spot-kick was flubbed by Neymar, whose shot clattered off the crossbar. The ricocheted ball then fell into the path of both Ivan Rakitic and Heiko Westermann, with the Betis defender accidentally knocking the ball into his own team’s net.
Both Betis boss Pepe Mel — who was eventually sent to the stands — and his players were livid at Garrido’s penalty decision. And rightfully so. This current Barca incarnation, perhaps more than any other, need only the smallest of advantages to completely shift their fortunes. Just as Betis were beginning to frustrate a timid Barca, a moment of misfortune (eg. a mediocre goalkeeper colliding with the G.O.A.T.) was all that was required to open the floodgates.
If the Barca giant was asleep prior to the penalty call, it became a rough beast after it. Instantly, Enrique’s men began shredding the Verdiblancos at will. The Westerman own goal came in minute 29. By the 33rd, it was 2-0 thanks to Messi. By the 46th, Suarez made it three. The Uruguayan added another in the 83rd to go ahead in La Liga’s pichichi race (15). In a match that seemed headed toward a stalemate, the Blaugrana broke through as they so often do. 4-0. Three points. First place.
(The Betis game also marked Messi’s 500th appearance for Barca, not to mention the 425th goal of his career. An amazing 2015 for the prolific Argentine appears to keep getting more and more amazing, even as the final minutes tick away. Should we even be surprised anymore?)
It was vital to Barca’s title hopes that they reclaim first-place from Atletico Madrid immediately upon their resumption of Liga play. Now that they’ve done just that, and now that “new” boys Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal will finally be cleared to dress as of January 1st, the title race becomes an onerous endeavor for Atleti, Real, and any other side who fancies themselves a contender. Happy New Year.