MADRID: Barcelona’s La Liga title challenge suffered a huge blow as the Spanish champions were controversially held 1-1 at Real Betis despite Luis Suarez’s last minute equaliser yesterday. A point is enough to move Barca above Sevilla into second on goal difference after Sevilla also missed the chance to go top of the table as they were reduced to 10 men after just two minutes in a 3-1 defeat at Espanyol. Real Madrid lead both by a point and have two games in hand on their title rivals, the first of which comes at home to Real Sociedad later yesterday.
Aleix Alegria gave Betis the lead their dominance deserved 15 minutes from time when he bundled home from close range after Marc-Andre ter Stegen flapped at a corner. However, Barca were rightly infuriated seconds later as the ball clearly crossed the Betis goalline, but no goal was given by referee Alejandro Jose Hernandez. Suarez did at least rescue a point in the dying seconds, though, as he slotted home Lionel Messi’s through ball for his 21st goal of the season.
“We have to help the referees,” Barca boss Luis Enrique told BeIN Sports Spain. “The technology can help them. I say that for all situations not just ones that go for me, but against me too.” Suarez was less understanding as he claimed the ball “was a metre over the line.” Ultimately Enrique paid the price for again heavily rotating his side with Wednesday’s Copa del Rey semi-final, first leg at Atletico Madrid in mind. “The feeling I have is that we have won one point (not lost two),” he added. Enrique made six changes in all, including three of the back four and Betis took advantage with a bright start. Ter Stegen was forced into saves from Ruben Castro and Dani Ceballos early on. However, Barca arguably had the best chance of the first-half when Antonio Adan flew off his line to deny Neymar from another scintillating Messi pass. Ceballos saw a dipping long-range effort come back off the bar before Castro struck the post with Ter Stegen beaten at his near post.
The German goalkeeper had a moment to forget for the opening goal as he failed to get a good connection on an attempted punch under pressure from two Betis players and the ball fell kindly for Alegria to tap home. Conceding appeared to wake Barca from their slumber and they were doubly denied by Hernandez seconds later as Neymar went down inside the area and the ball ricocheted towards the Betis goal off Riza Durmisi. Replays showed the ball clearly went over the line before Alissa Mandi cleared, but La Liga’s refusal to implement goal line technology due to pricing fears cost Barca dearly as no goal was given. Betis should have sealed the three points when Castro broke clear on goal eight minutes from time, but Ter Stegen redeemed himself with a fine save.
And that miss proved crucial as Messi finally found the space to slip a pass through the Betis defence and Suarez dispatched the ball into the far corner. There was also refereeing controversy at Espanyol as Sevilla’s shot at moving top lasted barely two minutes when Nico Pareja was very harshly sent-off on top of conceding a penalty for a trip on Pablo Piatti. Former Sevilla favourite Jose Antonio Reyes showed no mercy to his former club as he converted from the spot, although Reyes did hold his hands up in apology at the travelling support. The 10 men reacted brilliantly, though, and were level when Stefan Jovetic continued his hot streak since joining on-loan from Inter Milan to sweep home Samir Nasri’s pass after 19 minutes.
Reyes haunted Sevilla once more as his free-kick was headed home by Marc Navarro in first-half stoppage time.
And Gerard Moreno sealed the three points for Espanyol as this time Navarro was the supplier for his headed finish.