MADRID, Spain– Lionel
Messi gave a hat-trick of assists on Sunday as Barcelona ended their turbulent
week with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Real Betis to stay in touch with Real
Madrid at the top of La Liga.

Madrid’s 4-1 win at Osasuna earlier in the day put pressure
on Barca to respond, only for Betis to twice lead at the Benito Villamarin
through a penalty from Sergio Canales and brilliant solo effort from Nabil
Fekir.

Yet both times Barcelona hit back as Frenkie de Jong and
Sergio Busquets pulled them level before Clement Lenglet headed in with 18
minutes left, all three goals teed up by Messi.

Fekir and Lenglet were then sent off in a frantic contest by
the end of which, Barca had the victory they so desperately needed following a
difficult few days for the club.

Messi had put himself at the heart of a political spat this
week by publicly taking exception to comments made by sporting director Eric
Abidal, who suggested the players were the cause of the decision to sack
Ernesto Valverde last month.

Barcelona were then beaten by Athletic Bilbao and knocked
out of the Copa del Rey before the semi-finals for the first time in 10 years
on Thursday.

“In Bilbao we played well but they knocked us
out,” said Barca coach Quique Setien. “This win will give us
motivation and extra energy for the future.”

To make matters worse, winger Ousmane Dembele suffered
another hamstring injury, which is likely to keep him out for the rest of the
season, while centre-back Samuel Umtiti appeared in court too, for alleged
damages to a rented villa.

It meant defeat against Betis was unthinkable, particularly
for Setien, who could ill-afford another setback against the team he managed
for two years between 2017 and 2019.

Instead, Barca turned the tide, with a chaotic performance
that might have been punished by better opponents, but that keeps them three
points behind Real Madrid, who had earlier won at a canter in Pamplona.

– Bale returns as Real cruise –

Gareth Bale returned to the starting line-up after four
matches out of the squad and a fortuitous deflection meant he assisted Isco’s
equaliser after Unai Garcia had given Osasuna a surprise lead.

Sergio Ramos then headed Madrid in front before substitutes
Lucas Vazquez and Luka Jovic made the scoreline more emphatic.

“I’m pleased with all the players and what they’re
doing,” said Zidane. “It’s very good to stay in front.”

Barca’s exit in the Copa del Rey overshadowed Madrid’s own
shock defeat at home by Real Sociedad in the quarter-finals, a loss that
brought a dramatic end to their 21-match unbeaten run.

But Zidane will be relieved to see his team swiftly back on
track with a performance full of the kind of resilience that Real’s rivals have
so lacked in recent weeks.

Bale also keeps coming back under Zidane and the 30-year-old
had chances to add a goal to a spirited display before going off to a decent
reception from the away support in the second half.

This was only his third appearance since the turn of the
year.

“People want there to be a problem but there isn’t
one,” Zidane said. “He did well, offensively and defensively he gave
everything. He was a bit short of fitness at the end, so he came off.

“We know the player he is and that he will give a lot
from now until the end of the season. Let’s count on Gareth.”

Eden Hazard is still yet to return after recovering from a
foot fracture. Real play Manchester City in the Champions League in less than
two weeks. “It wasn’t the time today again and I hope we’ll see him next
week,” said Zidane.

Sevilla lost ground in the race for the top four as they conceded
two late goals to lose 2-1 at struggling Celta Vigo.

After one win in five league games, Sevilla drop to fifth,
behind Atletico Madrid on goal difference and three points adrift of
third-placed Getafe.

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