If there's one chink in Barcelona's splendid armour this season, it's their dependency on Lionel Messi. Alongside Thierry Henry, Messi was left out of the starting line up at Real Betis on Saturday as Barca drew 2-2 and dropped points for the first time since November.
The Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola knew of the dangers. Midweek international matches left him with little time to prepare his players for a game at the Ruiz de Lopera, where they have struggled over the past decade. The Catalans had won only twice in nine matches and lost five, including a 3-2 loss last season in a game they led by a two-goal margin. It was Barca who fell two goals behind this time as the mid-table Betis surged ahead.
The defender Melli beat Sergio Busquets to head Paco Chaparro's side into the lead from a corner after 18 minutes. Backed by a raucous home crowd, the Andalusians doubled their lead when Barca's defence failed to clear a cross from Sergio Garcia, allowing the Chilean forward Mark Gonzalez to volley past Victor Valdes. Messi was seen nonchalantly chewing gum on the bench, but luckily for Barcelona, their firepower is not limited to the Argentinian.
For the second week in succession, Samuel Eto'o netted twice, taking his league goal tally to 23 in 22 games and ensuring that Barca remain unbeaten since August. The Cameroonian scored from a penalty in first-half injury time when Andres Iniesta was brought down by Juande. The goalkeeper Ricardo Pereira blocked Eto'o's shot, but was unable to stop him driving in the rebound. The second goal from Eto'o, came in the 84th minute after he shot through the legs of Fernando Vega.
That equaliser symbolised Barca's indomitable character which Guardiola has helped embody. Chasing an 11th straight win, the Catalans finished strongly with Messi and Bojan on the field, but Betis held out for a deserved draw. "We came to win and that hasn't happened, but I have no criticisms because the team played well and created chances," said Guardiola. "You learn from every game in football and I've learned tonight. Betis are a good team and gave us an uphill challenge which we did not hide from. There are 15 games left - that's a lot of football."
In the other games on Saturday, Osasuna climbed out of the relegation zone as they extended their unbeaten run to four matches with a 0-0 draw at Deportivo La Coruna. Valencia could only manage a 1-1 home draw against Malaga. David Villa put his side ahead in the 53rd minute before Albiol equalised with a penalty six minutes later. Defending champions Real Madrid had the opportunity to trim Barca's 13-point lead to 10 points when they took on Sporting Gijon last night.