Real Betis 0-2 Barcelona: as it happened
Barça needed to win after victories for title rivals Real and Atlético, and goals from Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suárez ensured they did just that.
Second-half goals from Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suárez saw Barcelona beat 10-man Real Betis in Seville on Saturday - and keep themselves in pole position to lift the LaLiga title, with two matches to go.
For the second weekend running, Luis Enrique's men went into the clash provisionally down to third after earlier wins for title rivals Real Madrid and Atlético, but for the second weekend running they ended the day having reclaimed top spot.
Despite dominating possession, Los Azulgranas found themselves frustrated in the opening 45, struggling to break down the hosts' backline.
However, their cause was aided just past the half-hour mark when Betis defender Heiko Westermann was dismissed for a second booking.
And soon after the break, the visitors made the breakthrough. Centre-back Germán Pezzella and keeper Antonio Adán both missed Leo Messi's ball into the box, leaving ex-Sevilla man Rakitic to prod into an empty net - the Croat's fourth goal in his last six against Betis in LaLiga.
With ten minutes left at the Benito Villamarín, Messi was then the provider once more as Barça sealed the points. The 28-year-old fed a delightful through-ball to find Suárez running in behind the defence, and the Uruguayan produced a low finish past Adán for his 35th league strike of the campaign.
The victory leaves Barça level on points with Atleti but above Los Rojiblancos by virtue of their head-to-head record against the capital side, while Real lie one behind.
Here's how the game unfolded:
Peeeep! FT in Seville: Real Betis 0-2 Barcelona. Tonight's guests had to win after victories for both of their title rivals, and they did just that with two second-half goals. They make their way back to Catalonia with three precious points that see them stay top of the table with two games remaining in the run-in, and have the small matter of a city derby up next as neighbours Espanyol visit the Camp Nou. Hope you've enjoyed reading. Bye!
Min 91 | Suárez heads it across to Piqué bursting into the area, but the centre-back can't get his shot away and is hustled off it. Could have been three.
Min 90 | Three minutes of time added on.
Min 88 | Final change for the leaders, and keeper Bravo appears to have some sort of problem because he's the man being hooked. It looks like he might have done himself damage heading clear a couple of minutes ago. Birthday boy Marc-André ter Stegen is on in the Chilean's stead.
Min 86 | Second sub for Barça, goalscorer Rakitic off - to not unexpected whistles from the Betis faithful - and Arda Turan on.
Min 81 | Gooooal! Two-nil to Barça! Messi exchanges passes with Iniesta in midfield, looks up and finds the run of Suárez with an inch-perfect, defence-splitting through ball for the Uruguayan to finish past Adán. It's all about the pass from Messi - absolute peach. Suárez moves on to 35 league goals this season.
Min 80 | Bravo Claudio! Barça's keeper comes to the rescue to head clear with Van Wolfswinkel chasing down a long Betis ball.
Min 78 | Third and final sub for Betis as Van Wolfswinkel enters the fray in place of Castro.
Min 77 | What a pass from Iniesta. He dinks it delicately over the Betis backline to Neymar in the area, but the Brazilian's control lets him down.
Min 75 | Barça make a change, Sergi Roberto coming on for Dani Alves.
Min 74 | What a chance for Suárez! Messi pulls it down in the box, squares to his strike partner, who's unmarked and one on one with Adán... But the former Real Madrid keeper denies him! Could and should have been two and very much good night Vienna.
Min 72 | It's like attack versus defence here, as Barça pin Betis back time and time again. Messi dinks it to the back stick, Neymar heads across and Adán has to be alert to pluck the ball out of the air with Suárez waiting.
Messi's assist for Rakitic's goal was his 126th in LaLiga, note stats men Opta - 50 more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Min 68 | Second change for Betis, as Ceballos - who did finally get himself into the book shortly before being withdrawn - makes way for Portillo.
Min 65 | Ooooh, Barça are guilty of trying to walk it in. Messi pings a sumptous diagonal pass to Neymar in space on the corner of the box, and the Brazilian cuts inside the area and shapes to shoot before playing it across to Suárez, who also shapes to shoot but doesn't, preferring to cut back inside... And Betis clear. Could have been two had someone pulled the trigger.
Min 62 | Musonda breaks dangerously, then does a Fernando Torres-special tread-on-the-ball-while-dribbling-forward, and the momentum of the move is lost.
Min 58 | Ceballos is a great talent, but he needs to sort out his tackling - he's hit Piqué with another nasty challenge. He remains absent in Mateu Lahoz's notebook, though.
Min 56 | Barcelona are looking that bit more incisive in attack, and Messi almost feeds through a delicious ball to Neymar running into the box, but it's cut out. Suárez then gets to the byline and crosses for Neymar, Bruno's headed clearance falling to Messi - but his shot is deflected wide for a corner, which eventually sees Barça's Uruguay international curl well wide.
Min 55 | First substitution of the evening: Musonda is on in place of Joaquín for Betis.
Min 54 | Barça are hard on the scent of a second here, and Neymar feeds Messi in the box to control and get his shot away, only for the Argentine to see it nicked away from him before he can.
Min 50 | Gooooal! Barça take the lead! Messi chips it in towards the back post, Adán comes out to claim, and is very much unsuccessful in the endeavour - in his defence surely put off by Pezzella's failed overhead attempt to clear right in front of his eyes, though - and Rakitic controls and gratefully prods it into an empty net. As you were at the top of the table, then. The ex-Sevilla man will have enjoyed that, one suspects... That was his fourth goal in his last six LaLiga games against Los Verdiblancos.
Min 47 | There's a chance for Suárez! The Uruguayan had had the ball nicked away from his toes moments before, and now Neymar feeds a delightful little ball into the box that splits the Betis defence in two - but Suárez pokes it wide with his first-time effort. Clearest opening yet for the away side.
The second half is up and running! No changes for either side.
Peeep peeep! HT at the Benito Villamarín: Real Betis 0-0 Barcelona. Barça have had the lion's share of the possession (71% to 29%) and have huffed and puffed, but have lacked their customary cutting edge - and are yet to carve out a truly gilt-edged scoring opportunity. Nothing less than all three points will do the job for Luis Enrique's boys tonight, and they'll need to find another gear in the second 45. However, as the hosts tire, Heiko Westermann's first-half dismissal could well be significant.
Min 45 | Suárez feints, gains half a yard and crosses to the far post, but it's juuust too long. Barça pushing for a goal to take into the dressing room. Alves then bursts to the touchline and crosses dangerously, but is pulled back for appearing to hand his marker off - and earns a booking for his troubles.
Min 43 | Alves' ball to the back of the box finds Neymar, who looks to find space to get a shot in - but Cejudo is alive to block the Brazilian's attempt.
Min 39 | Barcelona are on the attack once again, and are faced with a green and white wall once again, as Mascherano finally delivers a chipped pass that is too long. Messi then dinks it in with Suárez scampering into the box to latch on to it, but the Uruguayan is offside.
Min 36 | Westermann is off! The defender scythes down Rakitic and earns a second yellow. Barça up against 10 men once again... The resulting free-kick is swung into the box to the back stick, and is headed behind for a corner to the guests, which is cleared. The ref had to clear a bottle from the field before Rakitic took that corner. Will that spell disciplinary trouble for Betis?
Min 34 | Petros is cautioned too now after fouling Neymar. I make that five in Mateo Lahoz's black book of naughty boys already. It leaves Barça with a promising free-kick out on the left, which comes to zip.
Min 31 | Betis have a couple of chances to counter and catch Barça on the break, but twice they can't quite locate green and white shirts with their passes. It's looking like an attacking avenue with potential for Juan Merino's charges, though.
Min 29 | Uff! There's a very presentable chance for Neymar, as Alba touches back to him in the box and he gets the ball out of his feet to shoot on goal - but it's too close to Adán.
Min 28 | Westermann is now into the book for clearly tugging back Messi. The German then has the cheek to complain. Pah. Messi was also booked for dissent earlier, it turns out.
Min 26 | Barça attack again and Rakitic's shot is blocked by ex-Camp Nou man Montoya.
Min 25 | A couple of minutes past the midway point of the first half, and Barcelona haven't particularly looked like troubling the scorers. "At what point in the game do Barça start to feel urgency creeping in?" ask our Spanish commentary team.
Min 24 | There's another yellow, and this time it's for Piqué after a high challenge on Cejudo. The defender looks suitably aggrieved when he sees the card bring brandished in his direction. Dangerous free-kick for Betis to whip into the mixer here... But it's long and past Bravo's far post. Waste.
Min 20 | First booking of the match for Bruno, for a foul on Neymar - he was possibly still reeling from being skinned by the Brazilian moments earlier.
Min 19 | Now Iniesta shoots - but it's well wide. Neymar offered up his first moment of danger by jinking round Bruno on the left and cutting back to the midfield maestro, but it's sliced from Spain's 2010 World Cup hero.
Min 18 | Messi drops deep, collects the ball and picks out Alba on the left with a sublime pass, the left-back producing a volleyed cross-cum-shot that's meat and drink for Adán in the Betis goal.
Min 14 | Piqué is fuming, and not without justification. Ceballos catches him late and studs-up over on the right sideline, but there's no punishment for the Betis youngster other than a Barça free-kick. Lucky boy.
Min 13 | Iniesta dinks it towards Messi running into the box at the back post, but it's too long for the diminutive Argentine, and it's out for a goal-kick.
Min 12 | Barça have had a few minutes of prolonged possession, but at the moment it's all in front of the Betis backline, and the visitors are yet to carve out a true opening of their own.
Min 5 | First real moment of danger of the match, and it goes to the hosts! Rakitic loses it just inside the Betis half, and it's three on two for the hosts - but Castro treads on it just outside of the area and the momentum of the break is slightly lost, before he digs out a shot that Mascherano deflects off target. Bruno's header is then tipped over from the resulting corner.
Min 3 | Plenty of Barcelona possession, accompanied by plenty of whistles from the home support. Luis Enrique in short sleeves on the bench, showing off a fetching tattoo on his right bicep.
Peep! Antonio Mateu Lahoz gets us underway in Seville. Real and Atlético's wins earlier today mean only one thing will do for Barça: tres puntos.
2 mins to kick-off | Betis have won their last two home games in LaLiga - can they make it three in a row and set the cat well and truly amongst the pigeons at the top of the table?
4 mins to kick-off | The teams make their way on to the field... The sun is shining in Andalusia and the home fans are in fine voice for the visit of Luis Enrique's men.
The teams are out!
Real Betis XI: Adán, Bruno, Pezzella, Westermann, Montoya, Cejudo, Petros, N'Diaye, Ceballos, Joaquín, Castro.
Barcelona XI: Bravo, Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba, Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta, Messi, Suárez, Neymar.
Luis Enrique's men travel to Seville with the strange sensation of having had a full week to prepare for tonight's game. With Atlético dumping los azulgranas out of the Champions League, Barça can now focus fully on the league, and with Real Madrid and Atleti playing earlier today, they will be keen to take a step closer to the top of the LaLiga podium and retain their title.
With no European wear and tear to deal with, Lucho will be taking no chances in Andalusia and is strongly expected to line-up with his fiercest starting XI: Bravo; Piqué, Mascherano, Alves, Alba; Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta; Neymar, Messi, Suárez.
Juan Merino on the other hand will be trying to ghee up his troops, whose minds might already be on the playa now that safety in the division is pracitically assured for them.