In a wild night of football, Barcelona beat Real Betis in a pulsating five-goal thriller at the Benito Villamarin.
The result lifts the Blaugrana back up to second in the table and keeps their faint hopes of a title challenge clinging to life. However the result may end up being a Pyrrhic victory for Barcelona as they lost centre-back Ronald Araujo to injury along the way.
Araujo had to leave the pitch after just 11 minutes having sprained his ankle when making a clearance. It looked bad and although the severity of the sprain won’t be known until tomorrow after they run tests, it’s probably not going to be good.
And for context, with Barcelona where they are in their season, anything that keeps him out for a week or more is not good. In fact it’s bad. Barcelona have a Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg coming in a few days and the midweek after that is the return of the Champions League and the Blaugrana’s blockbuster battle with old enemies PSG.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) February 7, 2021
With a fit Ronald Araujo, Barcelona could have headed into those games with the utmost confidence they could win them. Leo Messi was playing well, aided by Ousmane Dembélé and Pedri. Antoine Griezmann was scoring, Jordi Alba was being decisive, Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong controlling the midfield. But most importantly: Ronald Araujo was running defence.
Araujo is a centre-back unlike any other the club has had since Carles Puyol: a pure defender. Not in any way, shape or form a brilliant or even very good passer. The Uruguayan is a big, strong, quick and extremely intelligent defensive colossus. He spots danger, he has the skill and sense to snuff it out and his ability to cover ground as well as dominate in the air protects Barcelona’s glaring weak spots.
It was quite telling that the two goals that Barcelona conceded against Real Betis came from a counter-attack and a cross, because these are the areas where the Blaugrana have always been weak. For years Gerard Piqué has protected them against crosses but even the gallant Catalan has struggled to defend transitions but Araujo can do both.
Without him on the field however, Betis pounced. The first goal saw them drive through the Barcelona midfield at speed, where Araujo was not around to step up and intercept the ball. And indeed when the low cross came fizzing in from Emerson, it went straight to Borja Iglesias but in a position where Araujo should have been; his replacement Frenkie de Jong, in no way a defender, tried to push up as Araujo would have done but didn’t win the ball and then didn’t have the instincts to get back and protect the six yard line. So Betis scored.
Only Luis Suárez (14) has scored more LaLiga goals than Lionel Messi so far this season (13).
An instant impact off the bench. pic.twitter.com/FU6v5pRpGQ
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 7, 2021
Betis’ second goal was more straighforward: Barcelona suck in the air without Araujo. Clement Lenglet can attack crosses very nicely (albeit he struggles to hit the target) but when defending aerial balls he is a huge problem, one that Piqué and Araujo have covered. With the Uruguayan on, that cross from Nabil Fekir would probably have been headed away at the near-post.
Beyond the goals, Betis just ripped Barcelona time and time again. Sergio Busquets’ recent form fell apart and he once again looked leggy and out-of-sorts as he did last year. Why? Because Araujo wasn’t around to enable a high-line, compressing the space Busquets has to cover and then being the Catalan’s legs when it came time to chase back on Betis breaks. That they only conceded twice was fortunate.
Of course in the end Barcelona did win the game, as they usually do against Real Betis. Leo Messi came off the bench like Thor entering Wakanda and turned the tide of the game. Through a combination of the Argentine, Ousmane Dembélé and Jordi Alba, Barcelona scored twice and took the lead. A wondrous Messi goal was matched by a lovely pass that Alba crossed in to force an own goal. Then when Betis equalised again, fellow sub Francisco Trincao scored his first-ever Barcelona goal with a spectacular effort to win the game.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 7, 2021
So great, a win, a big win given the circumstances. But the fact that they conceded two goals in the way they did, and that they gave up so many good looks for Betis to create chances, does not bode well given the size and quality of the opponents that await them. Will Sevilla and PSG be as a generous as Betis were? Or as open defensively? Unlikely.
Again, with Araujo firming up defence, Barcelona had a chance. Without him? That chance is gone. Even if Gerard Piqué returns, that would only eliminate the danger from crosses, they would still be slow against transitions and, hello, Neymar? Mbappé? En-Nesyri? Papu Gomez? Being slow across the ground against those guys is a recipe for disaster.
For sure, you can never rule out a side that has Leo Messi in it, but if Ronald Araujo is injured for any serious amount of time Barcelona could be about to hit some very hard times this season.