Lionel Messi produced a hat-trick of assists as Barcelona pulled off a gutsy 3-2 win at Real Betis after trailing twice in an enthralling match in La Liga on Sunday, finally giving the Catalans something to celebrate after a week of upheaval.
Clement Lenglet headed home the decisive goal in the 72nd minute from a Messi free kick, earning second-placed Barca a first away win in the league in four matches and cutting the deficit behind leaders Real Madrid back to three points.
French defender Lenglet was then sent off for two bookings, moments after Betis’ Nabil Fekir had been dismissed for earning two yellow cards in the space of a minute.
Barca coach Quique Setien was making his first appearance back at Betis since being sacked by the Seville club last May and desperately needed a victory after Real had beaten Osasuna 4-1 earlier in the day.
But the visitors got off to a terrible start when Sergio Canales gave Betis the lead in the sixth minute from the penalty spot after a VAR review showed Lenglet had handled the ball.
Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong promptly equalised with the help of a lofted pass from Messi but Barca soon found themselves on the back foot again when Betis restored their lead with a strike from World Cup-winning forward Fekir in the 26th minute.
Messi proved pivotal in the Catalans levelling right before halftime, delivering a free kick into the path of Sergio Busquets who converted from close range.
The Argentine was also able to pick out Lenglet for the winning strike, setting up a goal for the fifth time in three games.
The topsy-turvy encounter was a fitting end to a dramatic week for Barca in which Ousmane Dembele sustained a serious injury, Messi lashed out at sporting director Eric Abidal and the team lost 1-0 at Athletic Bilbao to exit the Copa del Rey.
“This is a hugely significant win for us because Betis are a great team and were being roared on by their fans at home,” Barca coach Setien told a news conference.
“This is a very important victory because it keeps us near the top of the table and it will give us a huge psychological boost.”
Barca, who hired Setien last month after sacking Ernesto Valverde, had not won away from home in the league since beating Atletico Madrid on Dec. 1 and were smarting from a recent defeat at Valencia as well as the last-gasp loss in the Cup to Bilbao.
“It was so important for us to win after losing in the Cup in the last minute but we just had to keep playing in the same way and that’s what we did,” added Barca’s Sergi Roberto.
“It was vital that we found our form and started winning away from home again so we go home feeling happy.”
Ruthless Real down Osasuna for fifth straight win
La Liga leaders Real Madrid continued their rampant form by coming from behind to win 4-1 at Osasuna on Sunday for a fifth consecutive league victory as they produced a defiant response to their Copa del Rey defeat by Real Sociedad.
The win increased Zinedine Zidane’s side’s advantage at the top of the standings to six points over nearest challengers Barcelona, who visit Real Betis later on Sunday.
Real started badly at Osasuna’s compact and notoriously atmospheric Sadar stadium, Unai Nunez giving the home side the lead in the 14th minute with a diving header from a corner.
The visitors showed little sign of panic, however, and midfielder Isco equalised in the 33rd minute with a volley after Gareth Bale had come close to scoring with a header and Karim Benzema had seen a shot cleared off the line.
Captain Sergio Ramos put Real in front five minutes later with a header from close range after a flick-on from Casemiro while substitutes Lucas Vazquez and Luka Jovic stretched the lead with late strikes.
“This was a typical game against Osasuna, we know how passionate their fans are and that they put you under real pressure. They went ahead early but we stayed calm and got the game back under control,” Casemiro told reporters.
“We had just been knocked out of the Cup and this was a tough game for us mentally but we showed that we want to fight to win every other competition we are left in and got three very important points.”
Real tasted their first defeat since October in Thursday’s 4-3 Cup loss at home to Real Sociedad but Zidane recalled many of his top performers to face Osasuna, who had only lost twice at home in the league in the last 22 months.
Full backs Ferland Mendy and Dani Carvajal restored solidity to their defence while Casemiro effectively anchored a midfield that was too lightweight against Sociedad.
Bale, making his first league appearance for a month, laid on the pass from which Isco pulled Madrid level and set them on the path to another victory which underlined their status as title favourites.