Madrid (AFP) – Lionel Messi gave a hat-trick of assists on Sunday as Barcelona ended their turbulent week with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Real Betis to stay in touch with Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Madrid’s 4-1 win away at Osasna 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 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 on Thursday.
To make matters worse, winger Ousmane Dembele suffered another hamstring injury, which is likely to keep him out for the rest of the season, while centre-back Samuel Umtiti appeared in court too, for alleged damages to a rented villa.
It meant defeat against Betis was unthinkable, particularly for Quique Setien, who could ill-afford another setback against the team he managed for two years between 2017 and 2019.
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.
– Bale returns as Real cruise –
Gareth Bale returned to the starting line-up after four matches out of the squad and a fortuitous deflection meant he assisted Isco’s equaliser 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,” said Zidane. “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.
But Zidane will be 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 in recent weeks.
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.
This 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 still yet to return after recovering from a foot fracture. Real play Manchester City in the Champions League in less than two weeks. “It wasn’t the time today again and I hope we’ll see him next week,” said Zidane.
Sevilla lost ground in the race for the top four as they conceded two late goals to lose 2-1 at struggling Celta Vigo.
After one win in five league games, Sevilla drop to fifth, behind Atletico Madrid on goal difference and three points adrift of third-placed Getafe.
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