BARCELONA

Valverde: Betis win "is an important step for Barcelona"

Valverde: Betis win an important step for Barcelona

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Lionel Messi starred with a hat trick as Barcelona won 4-1 at Real Betis, with Ernesto Valverde hailing it as a key step towards the title.

Ernesto Valverde stressed Barcelona have not won anything yet but accepted a 4-1 win at Real Betis was an important step in their LaLiga title defence. With Atlético de Madrid beaten 2-0 by Athletic Club in Bilbao on Saturday, Barça triumphing at the Benito Villamarín the following day moved Valverde's men 10 points clear at the top.

Messi and the matchball

Messi bags another hat trick

Lionel Messi scored a fantastic hat trick on the day he claimed the record for Barça wins with his 477th victory for the Calatan club. But their victory was marred by an ankle sprain sustained by Luis Suárez, who scored Barça's third goal, the striker needing to be substituted in the closing stages.

Valverde has regularly rejected suggestions Barça are targeting a treble but with his side in such a strong position in LaLiga and already into the Copa del Rey final, suggestions they could add the Champions League to the domestic double they won last term is inevitable. And Valverde conceded Barça are now closing in on a second LaLiga title in two years since he was appointed as the successor to Luis Enrique

Luis Suárez celebrates

Ten games to go

"After the result of Atlético, the three points against Betis were very important," Valverde said. "There are still 10 games and we have to be careful and keep going, but we have taken a very important step and we will see if it is enough to be champions. The good thing is that we finished this stretch of intense matches of recent weeks, now comes the break and after there are 10 games left, each time we pass one and win it, it will be an even more important step. Everyone can think what they want, but at the moment we try to win every game, first the league, then the cup and we'll see about the Champions League. But at the moment we do not have any titles, and in the league there are 30 points left to fight for, we have to keep pushing."

Tactical changes

Betis won 4-3 at Camp Nou in the reverse fixture and Quique Setién's side restricted Barça to only 43.9 per cent possession on Sunday, their lowest figure since Opta began collecting such data in 2004-05. Valverde switched from Barça's usual 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, bringing in Arturo Vidal, and he was happy with the way the tactical change helped the blaugranas win the game despite having less of the ball.

"We knew that they would play an intense match and with high pressure, they already did it at Camp Nou," he added. "We did not want them to take control, in the first game they passed us, when they scored four goals. When you change something, it's to improve, to be able to win and we've won, it seems that it may be due to that, but in reality it's due to the efforts of the players."