Lionel Messi scored twice as Barcelona kept pace with La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid in a nervy 3-1 victory at home to last-placed Real Betis on Saturday at the Camp Nou.
Messi gave Barcelona the lead with a 15th-minute penalty before the hosts doubled their lead through an own goal midway through the second half. Real Betis pulled one back moments later, but Messi sealed the victory in the 86th minute, converting a rebound after having a second penalty saved.
With 11 goals in his last seven games in all competitions, Messi seems to be hitting form at the right time as Barcelona head into the stretch run. The Argentine now has 25 league goals, just three fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo, despite missing more than a month through injury.
The victory took Barcelona up to 78 points, one behind leaders Atletico Madrid, who defeated Villarreal earlier Saturday. Real Betis, who lost for a league-worst 20th time this season, are last in the table, nine points adrift in the relegation zone.
Saturday's match came during a difficult stretch for Barcelona, who this week drew a ban from FIFA on signing any new players over the next two transfer windows. The ban stemmed from violations on rules for signing players under age 18, per BBC Sport.
Meanwhile, the club's fortunes on the field have been only slightly less dour. Although Barcelona have now won five straight league matches, the Blaugrana have lost both goalkeeper Victor Valdes and defender Gerard Pique to injuries in recent weeks. On Wednesday, manager Gerard "Tata" Martino's side drew 1-1 at home to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, a result that will make progression to the semi-finals more difficult.
"It will be tough right to the end and the margin of error is tiny. Every game left is a final and they'll all be difficult," Barcelona forward Pedro said, per Inside Spanish Football.
Pedro added: "We've been through some difficult times, but we try to isolate ourselves from all that and focus ourselves on the matches. We just put our minds on the games. We're calm and we're taking things one game at a time."
Despite the recent setbacks, Barca remain in contention for trophies on three fronts as the season heads for its climax. The second leg of Barcelona's Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid is set for Wednesday in the Spanish capital. Martino's team will need to score at the Vicente Calderon to remain alive.
Barca and Atleti will face each other again on the final day of the league season, and if the title race remains tight, the match could serve as a championship decider. Barca's third chance for silverware will come in the Copa del Rey final, where they will face another rival, Real Madrid, on April 16.
In his pre-match remarks, Martino said his players must concentrate in order to keep alive their quest for a treble. Per PA Sport (via ESPN FC), he said:
It's much easier for the players to focus on the football, because ultimately that is our job. We're aware of what's going on, but our attention is on the game against Betis.
For a team that has up to 12 games ahead of us and in contention for three competitions it's important not to deviate from the objectives we've set ourselves.
Before the match, some home fans at the Camp Nou unveiled a banner backing La Masia, Barcelona's youth academy.
Barcelona's first clear chance came in the 11th minute after Adriano picked out Xavi with a low cross from the left. Xavi connected well with his first-time shot, but Antonio Adan moved quickly to his left to palm the ball away.
Barca won a penalty three minutes later after Alexis Sanchez burst into the box with an electrifying dribble. Twisting and turning past multiple defenders, Sanchez finally went to ground under clear contact from Jordi Figueras. From the ensuing spot-kick, Messi sent Adan the wrong way and coolly slotted in to make it 1-0.
At the other end, Jose Manuel Pinto saved low to his left from Cedrick's shot in the 19th minute. Moments later, Messi freed Adriano on the left, allowing Adriano to cross to the back post for Dani Alves. But before Alves could tap in, Figueras tipped the ball out of the way to avert the danger.
After taking the 1-0 lead into half-time, Barca came close to a second in the 51st minute, as Xavi's free-kick grazed the top of the crossbar. Real Betis had a chance in the 64th minute after Jorge Molina freed Alfred N'Diaye, but N'Diaye's shot was tipped over by Pinto. Moments later, Barcelona scrambled to clear their area after Nono played a dangerous cross to the back post.
But instead of scoring an equaliser, Betis put one into their own net in the 66th minute to gift Barcelona a second goal. Adriano attempted to pick out Pedro with a through ball, but Figueras intercepted, poking the ball past Adan for a 2-0 Barcelona lead.
The two-goal cushion lasted only moments, however, as Real Betis scored almost straight away. Picking up possession along the edge of the box, Castro cut to the right and shot past under Pinto to make it 2-1.
The visitors kept threatening, but Barcelona won a second penalty in the 85th minute, as Antonio Amaya was whistled for a handball in Betis' box. Messi again took the spot-kick, and although his initial shot was saved, the Argentine converted the rebound off Adan's hands to complete the scoring at 3-1.
"They've taken the game with an own goal and two penalties. In the first one, I think there was a pull, but the second one was dubious," Adan said, per Inside Spanish Football. "That did us a lot of damage, because it just killed us off."
|Barcelona Player Ratings vs. Real Betis|
|Jose Manuel Pinto||8||7|
|Cesc Fabregas (for Iniesta, 79')||N/A||8|
|Neymar (for Pedro, 79')||N/A||8|
|Alex Song (for Xavi, 88')||N/A||7|
Barcelona play at Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday. The teams drew 1-1 in the first leg in Barcelona.
Barca then return to the league to play at Granada next Saturday.
Real Betis host Sevilla in the Seville derby next Sunday.