Madrid (AFP) – Barcelona secured qualification for next season’s Champions League on Saturday as Jordi Alba’s 94th-minute winner against Real Betis guaranteed the Catalans’ place in the La Liga top four.

Alba’s stinging injury-time volley snatched a 2-1 victory for Barca at the Benito Villamarin to ensure they will play in the Champions League next term, an achievement that is likely to be crucial to the club’s hopes of financial recovery.

When Xavi Hernandez took over as coach in November, Barcelona lay ninth in La Liga, with genuine concerns about their chances of closing the gap on the top four.

But, despite a recent dip in form, significant improvements have seen Xavi’s team surge up the table and they can now look forward to rejoining the likes of Real Madrid in Europe’s premier tournament next season.

The difference between Champions League and Europa League football could be worth more than 50 million euros ($52.7 million) to Barcelona, who began the season with debts of more than a billion euros, and after being forced to let Lionel Messi leave for free last summer.

Missing out on the financial rewards of the Champions League would have been unthinkable and while a trophyless season can never count as a success for Barca, finishing in the top four is an impressive achievement for Xavi and a huge relief for the club.

Victory leaves Barcelona second in the table, 11 points clear of Betis in fifth, with both teams having three games left to play. Barca should now be confident of clinching second place too, with five points the gap between them and Sevilla, who play at Villarreal on Sunday.

– Fati scores –

Betis looked like they had sealed a point after Marc Bartra headed in an equaliser in the 78th minute, three minutes after Ansu Fati had come off the bench to give Barcelona the lead. Alba, though, fired in at the back post to claim all three points for the visitors.

Fati’s goal was his first in the league since November as the 19-year-old continues his latest recovery from another lengthy spell on the sidelines.

The teenager briefly returned in January from a hamstring injury that has kept him out for the best part of six months, on the back of his nightmare 11 months out with a knee problem between November 2020 and September last year.

Real Betis had to change their goalkeeper after 17 minutes as the injured Claudio Bravo was replaced by Rui Silva, who was called into action soon after, tipping Ronald Araujo’s header onto the crossbar.

Barca also had the woodwork to thank for keeping the score level at half-time as Guido Rodriguez’s strike from the edge of the area cannoned off the bottom of the post.

Betis finished the first half the stronger but the game opened up in the second, with Barcelona looking more dangerous.

It was Fati, on off the bench, who made the breakthrough.

First, Fati tried to wriggle through a cluster of Betis defenders in front of him and when that failed, he tried a more direct route, the ball coming back to him from Alba and the finish finding a way through the bodies and dribbling into the corner.

Barcelona’s advantage, though, lasted three minutes as a simple, crossed free-kick from Nabil Fekir was met by the shoulder of Bartra, who bundled in a swift equaliser against his former club.

Betis’ German Pezzella could have added another but headed wide.

Fati scuffed a chance at the other end before Alba struck in the 94th minute, drifting in at the back post and sizing up Danu Alves’ floated ball in. He caught it sweetly, the ball flying into the top of the net.