Primera Liga round-up: Barca win 4-2 after Betis were reduced to 10 men as focus shifts to Wednesday's quarter-final meeting with Madrid.
Barcelona sweat it past Betis to close in on Real ahead of Spanish Cup
MADRID // Barcelona squandered a two-goal lead before seeing off 10-man Real Betis 4-2 to cut Real Madrid's lead at the top of La Liga back to five points on Sunday.
Two goals from Lionel Messi and a goal apiece from Xavi and Alexis Sanchez fired them to the victory after Ruben Castro and Roque Santa Cruz had levelled.
Betis had Mario Vazquez sent off with the score at 2-2 with 20 minutes remaining and Barca never looked back.
Now the focus is turned to the Spanish Cup on Wednesday when the two giants face each other in the first leg of a quarter-final tie.
Real Madrid had came from behind on Saturday to win 2-1 at Mallorca with late goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Jose Callejon.
"The cup is a different competition so we have to change our mentality. What we do know is we will go all out to get through the tie," said Xavi.
"We have no doubts about our play, although we know we can play better or worse than tonight. Our philosophy is always the same, we go out to attack. We were eight points behind Madrid and Betis made it difficult for us because they wanted the ball."
Barca coach Pep Guardiola added of Wednesday's game: "It's always good to go into a game on the back of a win, but we know who we are up against and we'll try to play the best game we can."
Betis started the better team in the Camp Nou and tested Victor Valdes twice in the opening minutes.
This only served to wake up the home team when Xavi, playing his 400th league game for the club, gave them the lead on 10 minutes, following up after a Cesc Fabregas shot had hit the post.
Two minutes later and Barca were two goals ahead when Messi steered the ball home after good work on the left from Sanchez.
However Betis continued to attack Barcelona with crisp passing and good movement off the ball.
Their reward arrived on 32 minutes when Castro was at hand to finish a pass from Salva Sevilla at close range after good work from Jorge Molina had drawn Valdes out of position.
It was the first league goal conceded by Barcelona at home all season.
Buoyed by this success, it was no surprise when Santa Cruz got the equaliser on 52 minutes.
With fluid passing in tight angles Betis were playing the champions at their own game and looked as likely a winner as the Catalans.
However, when Barca gained a numerical advantage on 71 minutes it was all the encouragement they needed to surge forward in search of the win.
Alexis got the third five minutes later with a low shot from the edge of the area after a pass from Xavi.
Messi finished off Betis from the penalty spot with four minutes remaining after Jose Dorado had handled in the area.
Athletic Bilbao beat Levante 3-0 to move within four points of their fourth-placed opponents and edge closer to a Champions League berth.
The result lifted them above Sevilla and Espanyol into fifth position.
First-half goals from Fernando Amorebieta and Fernando Llorente, his seventh of the season, and a last minute header by Mikel San Jose were enough for Bilbao to see off Levante's challenge in a game that Bilbao dominated from start to finish.
Athletic have now only lost one game in the last eleven in all competitions since the beginning of December and can look forward to an exciting 2012 with all to play for in La Liga, the Europa League and Spanish Cup.
Malaga missed the opportunity to go fifth when they lost 2-1 away at Sporting Gijon.
The winner in the last minute by Diego Trejo gave the home team a much needed three points but they remain in the relegation zone in 18th position, one point behind Granada and Mallorca.
Atletico Madrid fans welcomed back former star Diego Simeone as their new coach with a resounding 3-0 win over Villarreal.
On Simeone's first home game back at the club everything went right for a committed Atletico side that took the lead on 39 minutes through Colombian striker Radamel Falcao who made no mistake when put through by strike partner Adrian Lopez.
Falcao added to the scoreline on 50 minutes from the penalty spot after he had been felled by Villarreal defender Gonzalo Rodriguez.
Brazilian midfielder Diego Ribas finished the scoring with a crisp right-footed shot after a perfect pass from his compatriot Filipe Luis.
Racing Santander earned their first away win of the season with a 2-0 victory at Osasuna.