Barcelona conceded their first home league goals of the season in a hard-fought 4-2 victory over ten man Real Betis at the Camp Nou on Sunday night.
Real Madrid's 2-1 victory away at Mallorca had once again put the pressure on Pep Guardiola's side and their blushes were spared through the brilliance of Alexis Sanchez who inspired his team-mates to a vital win over their Andalusian opponents.
Credit was due to Pepe Mel's side however, as for the majority of the game they proved a worthy match to Barcelona's attacking style but they were eventually made to pay for their lack of discipline when Mario was sent off, turning the game in the Catalan champions's favour.
Prior to kick-off, Lionel Messi paraded his third Ballon d'Or award and Barcelona's latest piece of silverware, the Fifa World Club Cup, in front of an appreciative home crowd, setting the tone for what was predicted to be a routine home thrashing.
In truth, a tight contest was the last thing that Barcelona fans would have predicted after their team sailed into a two goal lead after just twelve minutes. Jorge Molina spurned a glorious opportunity when he was played clean through with only Valdes to beat and only three minutes later, midfield maestro Xavi opened the scoring. Alexis Sanchez found himself free on the edge of the penalty area before slipping an acute through ball for Cesc Fabregas who had sprung the offside trap. Fabregas, who is in a fantastic vein of goalscoring form of late, struck his shot against the post but the rebound fell kindly to Xavi, who marked his 400th league appearance for the club with a goal, a landmark moment for the Spanish international who has proved to be a valuable servant to his boyhood club.
Casto was forced to pick the ball out of his net only two minutes later when Messi scored his 32nd goal of the campaign. Once again, Sanchez found space on the left-hand side before fizzing in a teasing low cross which Messi nonchalantly flicked with the outside of his left foot past Casto. Barcelona were rampant and it seemed to be a question of how many?
Iniesta then attempted an outrageous volley from over 45 yards out before Rubén Castro's goalbound effort was deflected over by Sergio Busquets at the other end. The Real Betis striker did however convert his next opportunity on 32 minutes, becoming the first player to score a league goal at the Camp Nou this season. Barcelona's 41 goals had finally been answered. After rounding Valdes, Molina pulled the ball back for Salva Sevilla who found Castro unmarked inside the six yard box who was left the simple task of diverting the ball past the stranded Valdes. The Barcelona defence were at sixes and sevens, unaware of how Castro had evaded their backline.
Betis continued to press and their determination was rewarded in the 53rd minute when Roque Santa Cruz fired past the hapless Valdes. Iniesta was the guilty party when his loose ball was seized upon by Santa Cruz who played the ball to Molina on the left before continuing his run towards the edge of the box where the ball was played back to him, allowing him to open up his body and curl the ball expertly into the goal. It was a devastating counter-attack with a finish of the highest quality from the Paraguayan.
Messi and Dani Alves both came close to regaining the lead before the referee dubiously decided that Iniesta dived in the penalty box when it appeared that the Betis defender caught the Spanish midfielder's trailing leg.
The turning point in the match however came on 70 minutes when Mario was dismissed for a second bookable offence when he impeded Messi, whose mesmerising run had ripped through the heart of the Betis midfield. It was a cruel blow to Mel's side who had performed so admirably to keep the score level.
Inevitably, Barcelona made the extra man count only four minutes later when Sanchez capped his impressive display with a goal. Betis were found guilty of playing a high defensive line, allowing Xavi to spray a ball over the top which the Chilean forward latched onto, sidestepping a defender and firing low into the bottom corner. The ball did take a flick off the fingertips of Casto however and the Betis stopper will know he should have done better as he punched the ground in fury.
Jose Dorado was harshly penalised for handball in the closing stages, allowing Messi to smash home the spotkick and put the game beyond any doubt.
It signalled an important win for Pep Guardiola's side who remain within reach of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. A mouth-watering clash between these two giants is in store for Wednesday night when they face each other at the Santiago Bernabeu in their first leg of the Copa del Rey.