Barcelona boss Ronald Koeman complained this week about the intensity of this season, not without justification. It began late and with little time for a pre-season, and needs to end early because of the European Championship. There’s a packed fixture schedule, all the more so for those clubs still in the Copa del Rey. That’s the case of Barça, who have also had the Spanish Super Cup and have had games go to extra time in both competitions. So last night, with a Copa semi-final against Sevilla this midweek and given that it’s a trophy Barça are likelier to win than LaLiga, Koeman left Lionel Messi, Pedri and Frenkie de Jong out of his XI against Real Betis. Meanwhile, his counterpart Manuel Pellegrini kept back Sergio Canales, despite the hosts no longer being in the Copa, because of tiredness.
Messi introduction leads to a different second half in Seville
The absences contributed to an underwhelming first half, particularly for Barça, who also suffered an early injury when Ronald Araújo twisted his ankle. That’s another fitness issue in a defence that is a bit of a lottery: sometimes Marc-André ter Stegen wins out, sometimes an opposition attacker does. Betis blocked a sluggish Barça’s paths to goal and snatched the opener on a textbook counter finished off by Borja Iglesias from Emerson’s pass. Still behind at the break, Koeman was forced to shuffle his pack, bringing on Pedri for Martin Braithwaite, before soon also introducing Messi and Francisco Trincão for Miralem Pjanic and Riqui Puig. And the second half was, unsurprisingly, a different story.
Ruiz takes centre stage with a goal, an own goal and a costly error
Barça unleashed a Messi-led onslaught and in no time at all had turned the scoreboard on its head. Before then, it should be noted, Betis were denied a penalty after Sergio Busquets caught Aissa Mandi in the box. Who knows what would have happened if it had been given. The game was far from over at 2-1, though, the Blaugrana's defensive frailties again exposed as Betis got themselves back on terms through Víctor Ruiz. Alongside Messi, Ruiz was the night’s central figure. He put through his own net to give Barça their second, levelled with a fine header, and was at fault when the visitors made it 3-2, his dallying allowing Trincão to nip in and fire a superb shot in off the bar. A great second half - and a successful one for Koeman, who, like the steward in the Wedding at Cana, saved the best wine for last.