Barcelona moved eight points clear at the top of LaLiga as goals from Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski clinched a 2-1 win against a combative Real Betis side at Estadio Benito Villamarin.
Betis – themselves in the hunt for Champions League qualification – frustrated the leaders for over an hour on Wednesday, with Manuel Pellegrini’s men defending resolutely and Pedri missing two good chances.
However, Raphinha bundled in a delivery from the impressive Alejandro Balde, before Lewandowski converted following a corner to put Xavi’s side in control.
Jules Kounde’s late own goal ensured a nervy ending, but Barca held on to pile more pressure on Real Madrid ahead of their fixture against Valencia on Thursday.
Luiz Henrique saw a shot deflect narrowly wide as Betis edged a scrappy opening, before the offside flag foiled Raphinha when he nodded in Frenkie de Jong’s inviting cross after 33 minutes.
Barcelona improved before the interval, but they were denied by a strong save from Rui Silva when a fortunate deflection sent Pedri through on goal.
Pedri drew another reflex save from Silva within three minutes of the restart after being teed up by Balde’s cut-back, before Barca finally made the breakthrough 65 minutes in.
Balde was involved once again with a driving run down the left after a quick free-kick, teeing up Raphinha for a tap-in with a powerful low cross.
Lewandowski – playing his first league game of 2023 after serving a three-match ban – doubled Barca’s lead with 10 minutes left, swivelling to find the bottom-left corner after Ronald Araujo’s flick-on.
Betis ensured a tense finish when Kounde bizarrely netted at the wrong end with five minutes remaining, but Barca held on for their fourth successive league win.
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A trip to face top-four contenders Betis in a raucous atmosphere represented one of the more difficult-looking assignments awaiting Barcelona in their quest to regain the title.
As they have done so many times this season, however, Xavi’s men found a way to win a competitive affair.
Barca have now won each of their last four league games by a one-goal margin, the longest such run in their history.
Raphinha’s New Year’s resolution
Though Lewandowski’s goal ultimately proved to be the difference, Raphinha’s strike was crucial after Barca looked set to be frustrated by Betis.
The Brazil winger was linked with a move back to the Premier League in early January, but he has been inspired since the turn of the year, involved in six goals in all competitions in 2023 (three goals, three assists) – the joint-most among LaLiga players.
Balde makes his mark
Balde appears to have usurped the more experienced Jordi Alba for good on the left of Barcelona’s back four. The 19-year-old was exceptional at both ends and carved Betis open for the first goal.
Among players under the age of 20 in Europe’s top five leagues, only Bayern Munich’s Jamal Musiala (six) has more assists than Balde’s four.
Barcelona host struggling Sevilla in LaLiga on Sunday, while Betis welcome Celta Vigo a day earlier.