Betis faces European-place test

Pepe Mel’s men meet Barcelona in Seville as Athletic seeks home comfort

Leo Messi takes the ball round the Betis defense during the teams’ Liga meeting in January. / VICENS GIMÉNEZ

Real Betis has rapidly become the team to beat in La Liga. Real Madrid couldn’t manage it when Jose Mourinho’s men traveled down to Andalusia and Deportivo was unable to make a two-goal lead count when the green-and-whites visited the frigid north. Betis has risen to fourth in the league since being thrashed 5-1 by Sevilla, a chastening defeat that served to inspire Pepe Mel’s team to greater heights.

Sevilla, by contrast, has imploded since its Seville derby win and slumped to 11th on the table after Valladolid smashed and grabbed its way to three points in the Sánchez Pizjuán last Monday night.

Betis hosts Barcelona on Sunday in a true test of its mettle. The azulgrana seems to be strolling to the title this season without really getting out of second gear, a couple of flurries of excellence aside. Fifteen minutes was sufficient to blast a resolute Levante aside two weeks ago, and Athletic Bilbao, which held on for about 20, was eventually crushed in an all-round display last weekend that suggested Tito Vilanova’s side is within reach of its very best form. The upcoming winter break will not be particularly welcome in Catalonia.

Barcelona seems to be strolling to the title without getting out of second gear 

Leo Messi was not expected to return to training until Saturday after suffering a bruised knee in Barça’s Champions League match against Benfica, but he may be fit to play as he pursues Gerd Müller’s four decade-old record of 85 goals in a calendar year.

Betis forward Rubén Pérez promised that the home side would try to make life as “uncomfortable” for the visitor as possible. “We want to carry on getting points to be closer to our objective,” the Spaniard said. “Barcelona is the best team in the world and they will have the ball for most of the match, so it will be difficult. We’ll go for the win and try to get at least a point.”

As for Messi’s uncertain state of fitness, Pérez said it wouldn’t make much difference. “It doesn’t matter if the reserves or the starters play. If one goes down, another one better comes in.”

Rubén Pérez Betis will make life as “uncomfortable” for Barça as possible

For Athletic the Christmas lull cannot come soon enough — and neither can the end of the season. Fernando Llorente has confirmed he will be leaving in June; in the meantime, Marcelo Bielsa’s side is in 15th place with four wins from 14 and has already crashed out of the Europa League, having reached the final last year. Athletic is, with Barcelona and Real Madrid, the only Primera División ever-present, but that record looks in serious danger on current form. A visit from Galician neighbor Celta, which is level on points with Bielsa’s side, is the sort of match The Lions need to start killing off.

Real Sociedad, which is on a sterling run of its own with 10 points from its last four games, hosts high-flying Getafe, which leapt into the European places after dispatching Málaga in a 1-0 win at the Coliseum last week. That was Geta’s third win on the bounce, auguring a tight encounter at Anoeta.

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