FC Barcelona watched Girona get two points, then watched Real Madrid steal three more, and knew that they had to keep pace in La Liga if there was any chance of catching up. Their next test: Real Betis. On a fairly warm night in Sevilla, they had to fight for a win as necessary as it was difficult.
The first half began quite well for Barça, as they generally dominated throughout. A Ferran Torres goal brought them into half time up 0-1. As the second half started, it appeared to be more of the same, with the Valencian scoring again. However, Betis would roar back thanks to Isco Alarcón and his very own brace of goals. Now at a crossroads in the match, Barça could allow the meltdown to happen and escape with a point (or worse), or fight back to take the lead. The game swung around again as João Félix made it 2-3, then the shark bit for a third time to make it 2-4.
In the end, it was quite an exciting match, and a very needed three points to take away. How did each player perform?
Peña: 5/10 - Iñaki's main, most glaring flaw is his command of the box and securing the ball in the air. He consistently makes mistakes while punching away crosses, and doesn't just grab hold of the ball when it's in the air. I understand sometimes it's not possible to fully control it, but this isn't usually the case with Peña. He elects to punch it away, sometimes bafflingly, and it doesn't exactly project confidence. On Isco's second goal, he also failed to make himself big enough to dissuade the shot. He should've raised his arms more and made himself more imposing instead of just a quick little jump. He did have a nice save early into the second half, but not a good match for him for my money.
Koundé: 7/10 - He's not a bad center half. He's just a better right back. He played well in this one, and he seems to play really well off of Yamal; so does everyone, for that matter. The Frenchman got forward a few times, but didn't have to make the overlapping runs as often in this one. Overall just a solid game from him.
Araújo: 8/10 - Yet another example that the Uruguayan should play center back and Koundé right back. He was imperial in this one, using his speed very well. Both teams were afforded a lot of space throughout, and Araújo can cover ground like few others can. He also had a very important block on a shot attempt from Fekir in the second.
Cubarsí: 9/10 - Were it someone else with more experience, this performance would probably be an 8. But Pau Cubarsí is 16 years old. It's almost impossible to fathom someone at that young an age understanding the game this well. His positioning in the box and defensive fundamentals are extremely impressive; he was almost never in the wrong place. He defended well one-on-one more than once. He also looked extremely calm on the ball, never panicking. His passing, especially one in the first half to Balde, was sublime. A tremendous performance from this young man.
Balde: 7/10 - Balde is helped immensely by someone like Ferran on that left side. When he's allowed to invert, and not made to hold width all on his own, the young left back can be much more impactful. He has a good rapport with Ferran, who switches positions with him often. Hopefully, his goal in the last game will give him some confidence, because he certainly has the physical tools to be great.
Gundogan: 7/10 - The German's experience shows often and early. He and Frenkie, while not a perfectly balanced midfield no matter who the third player is, works. It feels like a match like this, with plenty of open space and a talented team like Betis on the break, would cause problems for this midfield. But they didn't really suffer much, apart from a 10-minute stretch in the second half. And that wasn't the midfield's fault, as the ball was buzzing around the box for Betis and the home side got a few lucky bounces.
De Jong: 7/10 - The Dutchman's ability to make difficult passes look simple is quite understated. He had a great looping ball in to Pedri early on, as well as several other balls in to Ferran and Yamal. Where he's impressed me recently is defensively. Don't get me wrong - he still has lapses. But he's improved his tackling, his duel-winning, and generally improved his positioning quite a bit. In the first half, he had several Busquets-type octopus tackles where he retained possession after stealing it. Not bad for Frenkie.
Pedri: 7/10 - He had a chance in the first half off a nice pass from Frenkie, which was just a bit high. Other than that, he was quite good. Yamal is similar to Pedri in the sense that they make things look easy. They're never sped up from their own pace. He took a fortuitous bounce off a defender and turned it into a simple slotted pass in to open the scoring. Great assist, and good game.
Fermín: 7/10 - Fermín was quite tenacious in this one, tracking back several times on defense. There was one play in particular where Betis had all the advantage against the back line, and he by himself managed to stall their advance until help arrived. Grit like that is certainly needed on this squad. Apart from that, the youngster
Yamal: 8.5/10 - If he wouldn't have hit the post on his shot attempt near the end of the first half, this would've been a 9 for sure. Yamal is the epitome of class. At his tender age, he oozes talent and makes the game simpler for his teammates as well. His dribbling is top-notch, as he got to the touch line several times to pepper crosses in. He had a ton of creative passes from several angles. His game is silky smooth. Several transition opportunities ran through his feet, where he generally makes good decisions. I understand he's very young, but he's their best pure winger by far.
Ferran: 9/10 - Betis got taken into the deep waters by the shark and eaten alive. Ferran has been on fire recently, and at such a needed time. I can't remember the last time a Barça player scored a hat trick. It seems like it's been centuries. The best part about it, though, is how he did it. All three goals were different. The first, a poacher's goal off a nice pass from Pedri. The second, a cracking volley off a deflection. And the third, a pretty finish off to a run in behind the defense. If he can keep this up, not even Xavi can justify starting Lewandowski over him. The shark is in full force, and he should be an undisputed starter.
Lewandowski: 6/10 - It must be said that Robert hasn't been as bad in recent games as he was a month or two ago. He's generally losing possession less, out of position less, and his touch hasn't been quite as bad. That being said, he was a bit invisible today. Ferran's first goal really should've been Lewandowski's, but he wasn't in the right spot. When Roque came on, even though the youngster didn't do much himself, the team as a whole just looked more fluid. The writing is on the wall, I believe, and it wouldn't do the Polish striker bad to come off the bench for a few games.
Roque: 6/10 - Vitor Roque is clearly still adjusting to life in La Liga. He got his first yellow card in this one; still waiting for his first goal. He did have a half chance in the box, but he's clearly still looking at when to make runs, the angles to take, and how to play off his teammates. I think he's got the potential to be a very good player, but it's going to take some time.
Félix: 8/10 - The Portuguese winger had a tiny chance to score, and he took it beautifully. The outside of the right boot into the bottom left corner of the goal, squeezing it past the keeper. Ferran's final goal iced the game, but Félix won it. All they ask of him is to be efficient with his chances. If he can keep that up, he'll be a very useful player.
Sevilla isn't on the coast, but a shark swam up the Guadalquivir river and bit Betis hard. Three points in the bag, and even though it was shaky at times, Barça were able to right the ship and pull out a 2-goal win. Xavi must've been elated, then dismayed, then overjoyed again. Moving on, Barça have to string wins together and keep pace. Let's hope that can happen, and things can change soon.