BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi was still celebrating his equalizer after coming off the bench for Barcelona when Sergio Busquets handed him the captain’s armband.
Once again, Messi had come to the rescue of his grateful teammates.
Messi showed why Barcelona agreed to keep him an extremely rich man when on Sunday he acted as Ronaldo Koeman’s super sub, scoring one goal and setting up another to help Barcelona earn a 3-2 win at Real Betis.
Youngster Francisco Trincão shared in the victory by clinching the thriller with his first goal for the club that he scored with three minutes to go.
“In half an hour, Messi demonstrated what a vital player he is for this team,” Koeman said. “Messi has shown for years that he is the best player in the world, above all for the creativity he displays in the final meters.”
Barcelona’s sixth league win in a row lifted it back into second place at seven points behind Spanish league leader Atlético Madrid, which has two more games to play. It hosts Celta Vigo on Monday.
HOT AWAY FROM HOME
Koeman has complained about the number of games his team has played over the last month in the league, Copa del Rey and Spanish Super Cup. He left Messi and first-choice midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Pedri González among his reserves on Sunday.
De Jong’s rest, however, only lasted 10 minutes before he came on for defender Ronald Araújo after he twisted his lower left leg.
Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis arrived at the match on a nine-game undefeated run across all competitions. It kept the visitors in check in the first half and an inspired Nabil Fekir threatened on the counterattack without Araújo to anchor Barcelona’s defense.
Borja Iglesias slotted in a low cross by Emerson after a quick transition into attack led by Fekir to put Betis ahead in the 38th.
Koeman sent on Pedri at halftime. Messi and Trincão soon followed.
Betis had already felt the fury of Messi coming off the bench facing a deficit this season. In November, the last time Messi started a league match from the bench, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner scored twice after going on at halftime to deal Betis a 5-2 defeat.
This time, he needed just two minutes to rifle a left-footed shot inside the post just after Ousmane Dembele drew in two defenders before assisting him inside the area.
Messi sparked a second goal in the 68th with an exchange of passes with Jordi Alba that left the left back clear to square the ball across the goalmouth. Antoine Griezmann scuffed a point-blank shot, but was fortunate that the ball hit Betis defender Víctor Ruiz and bounced in.
Ruiz made up for his error in the 75th when he rose to head in a free kick from lFekir.
But with Barcelona facing a setback in the title race, substitute Trincão recovered a ball from Ruiz and fired a long strike off the goalframe and into the net for the 87th-minute winner.
The victory in Seville was a second-straight comeback win for Koeman’s side. On Wednesday, Barcelona was trailing Granada 2-0 in the Copal del Rey quarterfinals until the final minutes before its late rally forced added time, where it completed a 5-3 victory.
After struggling early in the season with Koeman carrying out a revival of the team with young newcomers like the 21-year-old Trincão, Barcelona has vastly improved in recent weeks. Its peak physical condition has proven key to winning nine in a row away from Camp Nou between the league and cup.
“I think the team is more confident at this moment, and we always try, even when losing, to play football and to have the patience to win the game at the end,” Koeman said. “And with that our confidence has been growing.”
Aleksander Isak and Mikel Oyarzabal scored two goals each to help sixth-place Real Sociedad ease to a a 4-1 win over 10-man Cádiz.
Oyarzabal converted a penalty after Álvaro Negredo handled the ball. The Spain forward added a second before Cádiz defender Marcos Mauro was shown a direct red card for fouling a player with only the goalkeeper to beat just before halftime.
Isak scored his goals to make it 4-0 before David Silva went on as a substitute for his first appearance since December after recovering from a muscle injury.
Jairo Izquierdo got Cádiz’s consolation goal.
DRAW IN BILBAO
Valencia defender Gabriel Paulista headed in a second-half equalizer to draw 1-1 at Athletic Bilbao, which had gone ahead from an own-goal by Hugo Guillamón.
Bilbao coach Marcelino García Toral rested several of his regular starters in the match against his former team. Bilbao has only lost twice in nine matches since Marcelino took over.
Ante Budimir scrambled in a ball that had come off the post to give Osasuna a 2-1 win at home over Eibar in a relegation fight. The striker’s attempt from close range ricocheted off the upright and his chest before going in.
Osasuna moved out of the drop zone and into 15th place. Eibar was left in 17th.
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