Xavi is not ready to welcome the end of Barcelona's season despite the relief of clinching Champions League qualification on Saturday.

The Blaugrana beat Real Betis 2-1 in Seville to ensure the fifth-placed side can no longer catch them in second.

Ansu Fati's scuffed shot broke the deadlock, before ex-Barca defender Marc Bartra responded with a similarly untidy header.

It fell to Jordi Alba to win the match and secure Barca's top-four place with a sublime 94th-minute volley.

Coach Xavi saluted his side for the effort they put in to recover from a poor start to the season, having won every match they have played against top-10 opposition in 2022.

But he still has his sights set on tying up second place.

"We've taken a weight off our shoulders," Xavi said. "It could have been a more complicated and difficult season.

"The team has competed a lot. We have not played excellently in many games; in others, yes, but we have a winning soul and competitive character.

"We beat the top 10 in this second round of the season. It's evidence that we have to play better. It has to be analysed, but we have made a titanic effort from November to here.

"We will be in the Champions League, the competition we deserve. Now we want to be second."

However, Xavi added this achievement was the "minimum required" at Camp Nou, saying: "I want to compete for titles. We can't miss another year not being competitive."

The former Barca midfielder will hope Fati can have a big role to play in an improved 2022-23 campaign, having been limited to 12 appearances – in which he has still scored six goals – due to injuries this term.

Xavi hailed Fati as his "difference-maker", scoring 75 seconds after his introduction from the bench, and said: "It's a very good feeling to have him back."

Jordi Alba waited until the 94th minute on Saturday to sensationally clinch a 2-1 win at Real Betis and Barcelona's place in next season's Champions League.

The Blaugrana needed all three points against fifth-placed Betis to be sure of a top-four finish and looked set to be frustrated after Marc Bartra cancelled out Ansu Fati's opener.

But Alba unleashed an outrageous volley into the roof of the Betis net with almost the final kick to achieve Barca's aim with three matches to spare.

The result was perhaps harsh on Betis, who passed up their own chances to complete a first LaLiga double over Barca, yet there was no arguing with the quality of the decisive goal.

Barcelona coach Xavi is urging his players to take full advantage of a "golden opportunity" to seal Champions League qualification against a direct rival in Real Betis.

The Blaugrana go to Seville on Saturday sitting second in LaLiga, eight points clear of fifth-placed Betis – who won 1-0 at Camp Nou in December – as the battle for the top four nears its conclusion.

A win for Barca over the Copa del Rey winners would take them to 69 points and ensure they do not finish any lower than fourth, with Betis only able to reach 67 and sixth-placed Real Sociedad 68.

While the 15-point gap to champions Real Madrid highlights how confronting 2021-22 has been for Barca, Xavi has restored a degree of positivity since replacing Ronald Koeman in November.

Barca were ninth in LaLiga after 13 matches ahead of Xavi's first game in charge, 10 points behind second-placed Sevilla; they now appear favourites to finish ahead of Julen Lopetegui's side and dethroned champions Atletico Madrid as runners-up.

And Xavi wants his team to clinch Champions League qualification at the first time of asking.

"Hopefully, it's a golden opportunity to qualify for the Champions League," he said on Friday. "They're a direct rival, with great players and a great coach. It will be difficult.

"Football gives us the chance to take sporting revenge. We want to fulfil our goals before the end of the season.

"We are fighting for the minimum, but that's the way it is. There are two goals, but the most important is to be in the Champions League next season.

"That's the objective. If we can get second, which would give us the option of entering the Supercopa, then even better.

"We cannot think beyond this, [but] I hope that this summer there will be signings despite the economic situation. We cannot take the European qualification for granted.

"I expect an opponent [Betis] with a lot of confidence. They have won the Copa, they deserved it. I congratulate Betis, [Manuel] Pellegrini and the players, who are having an excellent, historic season. I congratulate them."

Ever since Xavi's return to the club, their "philosophy" and "DNA" have drawn a lot of focus, with many supporters feeling Barca's ethos was diluted under Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and Koeman.

Ronald Araujo commented that restoring "the Barca DNA" with Xavi was a chief goal of his after signing a new contract in April, and while the coach acknowledges he cannot change things in an instant, he is confident they are making progress with a top-four finish almost secure.

"It's not my message, it's the message of Barca's history," Xavi continued. "I don't have a magic wand, what I'm clear about is that with this model [Barca] won five Champions Leagues and world recognition.

"You leave Spain and they remember [Pep] Guardiola's Barca, [Lionel] Messi's Barca, and they remember how we won, not so much what we won.

"We have to wait and be patient. If we review history, there is no doubt."

Having helped his boyhood club to their first major trophy in 17 years by netting in a penalty shoot-out victory over Valencia in the Copa del Rey final, it is fair to say Real Betis captain Joaquin was in a celebratory mood.

Few neutrals would have denied the club, who have been relegated twice since their last Copa win in 2005, or Joaquin, a genuine Betis legend who has made the most appearances of any outfield player in LaLiga history (595), their moment of glory.

Unless, of course, they could have foreseen the way in which Joaquin chose to celebrate the triumph, in all his glory.

Having cemented his reputation as one of football's greatest practical jokers by posing stark naked with the Copa he won with former club Valencia in 2008, the 40-year-old decided to grace Betis' social media accounts with a recreation of that photo.

A Copa success might well be the most fitting end to Joaquin's career. He seems intent on making the memory last in more ways than one.

Those of a nervous disposition will probably be hoping it is the last trophy of his career, anyway.

A 10th Ligue 1 title for Paris Saint-Germain has evidently left a bitter-sweet taste.

Their devastating elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in the Champions League made for a fourth last-16 exit in the past six seasons, following final and semi-final defeats to Bayern Munich and Manchester City respectively.

Amid protests that culminated in fans walking out of the Parc des Princes as PSG claimed the domestic title at the weekend, the remedy reportedly appears to be a new coach.


TOP STORY – CONTE TO REPLACE POCHETTINO AT PSG

Paris Saint-Germain appear set to dismiss Mauricio Pochettino as their head coach and have lined up Antonio Conte as his replacement, Le Parisien is reporting.

Pochettino's exit is reportedly imminent and all that is left for the club is to come to a financial settlement, with another season left on the contracts of Pochettino and his staff.

PSG's preferred choice as Pochettino's replacement is apparently Zinedine Zidane, but he appears more intent to replace Didier Deschamps as France's national team coach if he leaves after the World Cup.

Tottenham boss Conte would be brought in on a two-year deal. 


ROUND-UP

Lucas Paqueta has told Lyon head coach Peter Bosz he will let the club know of his desire to stay or leave at season's end, according to the Chronicle.

- Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus is also yet to commit to his future beyond the end of this season, the Guardian reports.

Real Betis are keen to sign Real Madrid's Isco, who will be leaving at the end of the season, per Marca.

- Mundo Deportivo is reporting Barcelona are considering a bid for Ajax centre-back Lisandro Martinez.

A tearful Joaquin dedicated Real Betis' Copa del Rey triumph to all the club's supporters, after a tense penalty-shootout win over Valencia on Saturday.

Scores were locked at 1-1 after 120 minutes, with Hugo Duro cancelling out Borja Iglesias' opener for Betis in the 11th minute. Yunus Musah's miss in the shootout gifted the eventual opportunity for Juan Miranda to give Betis the 5-4 win on penalties, and the 22-year-old held his nerve.

"Long live Betis even when they lose" has become a mantra for supporters, with the club being relegated twice since their last Copa del Rey triumph in 2005.

The 37-year-old Joaquin, the boyhood Betis fan who was also playing against his old team on Saturday, could not hide his emotion post-match.

"These tears are the suppressed emotion of all these days, of seeing the people and how they supported us, knowing the responsibility of playing this type of game," he told TVE. "It is normal for these tears to flow. We are very happy.

"Let's enjoy the moment, we are Copa del Rey champions, and we dedicate it to everyone who is by our side – the staff, the coaches, the cooks, all the people who are not seen, for my daughters, my wife, my brothers, my parents, all the Beticos."

In characteristic Betis fashion, they had to do it the hard way against a Valencia team willing to absorb pressure.

The Verdiblancos went close to scoring a winner as Sergio Canales hit the frame of the goal, with Valencia keeper Giorgi Mamardashvili also denying Iglesias and Nabil Fekir.

Joaquin, the Betis captain and surviving member from that 2005 victory, believes his side's eventual triumph and contention for the Champions League this season was reflective of the steady improvement they have shown since gaining promotion back to LaLiga in 2015.

"I think that the work of this season and seasons past has been seen today, of gradually achieving goals and improving the team," he said.

"We are having a great season, all the fans deserve it, congratulations to Valencia because they also would have been fair winners. Penalties are a lottery but we also deserved it. It is a joy for all the Beticos."

Yunus Musah missed the only penalty as Real Betis beat Valencia 5-4 on spot-kicks following a 1-1 draw after extra time to win the Copa del Rey for a third time.

Betis entered the contest in their home city of Seville as favourites and led early on through a Borja Iglesias header, only for Hugo Duro to equalise from Valencia's only shot of the first half.

Despite chances for both sides in a gripping and feisty final, the contest at Estadio de La Cartuja went all the way to penalties and it was Manuel Pellegrini's side who prevailed.

Substitute Musah missed the only spot-kick, with Juan Miranda sending Giorgi Mamardashvili the wrong way to seal a famous victory for Betis.

 

Valencia trail Betis by 15 points in LaLiga and the gulf between the sides told early on as Borja Iglesias headed Hector Bellerin's cross past Giorgi Mamardashvili from six yards.

Jose Bordalas' men showed characteristic resolve by responding 19 minutes later, however, thanks to Duro's delightful dinked finish after being played in by Ilaix Moriba's incisive pass.

Betis went close to restoring their lead when Sergio Canales' deflected shot hit the woodwork but Valencia, who had a penalty shout for a shove on Duro turned down, held firm.

Moriba miscued a volley when spotted in a great position but Betis continued to create chances, with Juanmi denied by both Mamardashvili and then the post.

Nabil Fekir and Borja Iglesias were next to be frustrated by Mamardashvili, while Claudio Bravo was needed to keep out Carlos Soler in a gripping finale to normal time.

A quieter period of extra time followed, which was played at walking pace at times, paving the way for penalties to determine the winner of the 120th Copa del Rey final.

After the first six spot-kicks were converted, Musah skied his attempt and that set up Miranda to settle a tense final that went all the way.

 

 

There was a surprise guest at the wedding of Real Betis star Joaquin in July 2005 – surprise because this particular appearance hinged on the outcome of a football match five weeks earlier.

As Joaquin and his new wife stood at the front of the church in his hometown of Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz, something else couldn't help but hog attention.

The Copa del Rey trophy, draped in green and white ribbons stood tall – literally, because it's huge – and proud.

That's right, the Copa del Rey was an especially notable guest at Joaquin's wedding, as the winger – then 23 years old – had only recently helped Betis to just their second success in the competition and first since 1977.

Joaquin has always been regarded as something of a practical joker, with that not-so-subtle wedding decoration very much from his wheelhouse.

Fast-forward 17 years and Joaquin is readying himself for another tilt at the crown with his beloved Betis, who themselves haven't reached the final since that momentous 2-1 extra-time win over Osasuna at the Vicente Calderon.

 

Fittingly, Betis' opponents on Saturday will be the other club most people would associate with Joaquin: Valencia, with whom he won the only other trophy of his career in 2008 – also the Copa – during a five-year spell.

That triumph spawned another curious – but no less Joaquin – photo of the winger with the trophy, as he was snapped stark naked squatting next to the cup in Valencia's dressing room.

Hopefully social media won't see a repeat of that one on Saturday…

Joaquin didn't feature for Valencia in that final, however, and therefore his 2005 success will gratefully remain the focus for most.

While Joaquin is by no means the Betis regular he was 17 years ago when he was an exciting fleet-footed winger, this occasion will still be all about him in the build-up, with there also a degree of aptness around the fact Saturday's game is taking place in Seville, at La Cartuja.

This campaign is expected to be Joaquin's last as a player. Now 40, his contract expires at the end of the season and in November he hinted retirement was likely in 2022. Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini quickly looked to sweep that under the rug, adamant such decisions will wait until 2021-22 is finished, and there's been very little public discussion of the subject from he or Joaquin since.

It's easy to understand why many aren't predicting another year of Joaquin in LaLiga, though. Even if you ignore the fairly important point of his age, his time on the pitch has reduced significantly this term.

In LaLiga he has made only two starts this season and in total featured for just 395 minutes. Of course, he's been used across multiple competitions in 2021-22 and was named in the starting XI eight times in the Europa League.

But while his 31 appearances is actually one more than in 2020-21, his minutes-per-game average of 36 (1,117 total) is 12.4 minutes fewer than last term, highlighting how he's become even more of a peripheral figure.

But that's not to say his influence has waned. Pellegrini stood aside before the first leg of their Copa semi-final defeat of Rayo Vallecano to let Joaquin deliver a speech.

He said: "Look each other in the eyes. We are here because of ourselves. I don't know if I should talk to you as a team-mate, friend or captain, but I will do it as a Betico, because I know what many of them must be feeling here today.

"They are going to be there until the death. The Beticos, and this club, have suffered for a long time. Sacrifice and effort lead to glory. That's the reward.

"I had an uncle who used to say, and he taught me this, that there's nothing more beautiful than making other people happy – today we have that chance. We're going to go out there and show we want to be in that final."

Betis fell behind early on in that game in Vallecas but went on to win the game 2-1. They then looked to be heading for extra time when Bebe spectacularly put Rayo ahead with 80 minutes played of the second leg in Seville, but a moment of inspiration from Joaquin right at the end opened the Rayo defence up.

He brought down a cross-field pass, glided away from Bebe and slipped a perfectly weighted pass in behind the defence for Sergio Canales, whose prodded pass was deflected towards goal and tapped in by Borja Iglesias.

The entire Betis bench and staff mobbed Joaquin at full-time, fully aware of what their achievement meant to him – but it was also a show of appreciation, with the veteran's cameo showing he remains a very useful option.

On a per-90-minute basis across all competitions this season, Joaquin tops Betis' charts for assists (0.32), expected assists (0.29) and chances created (2.9), while his 4.3 dribbles attempted is bettered by only three players.

 

Of course, his sample size is much smaller than the likes of Nabil Fekir and Canales – the point isn't that he's better than them, simply that he's packing a lot of quality into his relatively brief appearances.

Don't expect to see his name in Betis' line-up on Saturday, but do not be surprised if he comes on and makes a telling impact – given the legendary status he holds not only at Betis but also in LaLiga, there'll be many willing him to enjoy a successful end to a fine career.

Let's not forget, his 595 LaLiga appearances is a record for an outfield player, while only one man in Spanish top-flight history has appeared in more seasons (Miguel Soler, 20) than his 19.

Assuming he does in fact play some part on Saturday, it will be his 106th Copa del Rey appearance, extending another record among non-goalkeepers.

A 17th wedding anniversary might not be a big milestone for most, but you can count on Joaquin bringing the Copa along for the celebrations if Betis succeed this weekend.

Jan Oblak believes Atletico Madrid have turned a corner after battling to a 3-1 victory at Real Betis on Sunday.

Atleti followed up victories over Osasuna and Celta Vigo in LaLiga with three more points at Estadio Benito Villamarin to move above their opponents into fourth place.

Two goals for in-form Joao Felix, either side of Cristian Tello's equaliser deep in first-half stoppage time, was followed up by a late strike by Thomas Lemar.

After winning three league games in a row for the first time this term, Oblak feels confident his side can hold off the chasing pack and secure a Champions League berth.

"This is a different Atletico, we have to continue like this," Oblak told Movistar. "Only in this way can we reach the Champions League. 

"There's a long way to go. All the players and the coaching staff are involved in that. If we continue like this, we have no doubt [of finishing in the top four]."

 

Joao Felix has now scored four goals in his last four appearances in all competitions for Atletico, compared to three goals in his first 23 outings at club level this campaign.

He has scored two or more goals on five occasions for Los Colchoneros, though this is the first such occasion he has managed that since November 2020 against Cadiz.

While his output in front of goal has improved drastically in recent weeks, the Portugal international insists he has performed at a consistent level all campaign.

"Nothing has changed," he said. "I was also doing things well before, but goals were missing. Now they are arriving and I'm hoping to keep it up.

"As a team we are well-connected and clear about our objective. We are performing well and our attitude is good. When that is the case, the quality shows."

Atletico are two points better off than Betis, who slipped from third to fifth this weekend, and are level with Barcelona – 2-1 winners against Elche earlier on Sunday – in third.

Reflecting on a huge victory for his side with the pressure on, head coach Diego Simeone said: "We were facing a rival who is in a very good moment. 

"You have to play with humility, with the same spirit, and go game by game. We will now try to get better."

Joao Felix scored twice as Atletico Madrid beat Real Betis 3-1 at Estadio Benito Villamarin to climb above their opponents into fourth place in LaLiga.

Barcelona's 2-1 win over Elche earlier on Sunday had knocked Betis down to fourth, and Atleti were out of the Champions League qualification berths entirely.

That increased the pressure on Diego Simeone's men to pick up a third win in a row, and they went in front inside two minutes thanks to Joao Felix's tap-in.

Betis substitute Cristian Tello equalised from the final kick of the first half, but Joao Felix netted another just after the hour mark and Thomas Lemar sealed the win for Atleti late on.

Joao Felix opened his account from close range with just 74 seconds on the clock – Atleti's earliest league goal since July 2020 – after being picked out by Angel Correa.

The visitors wasted a big chance to add a second when Yannick Carrasco somehow failed to pick out either Joao Felix or Renan Lodi alongside him in a three-on-one attack.

Soon after Jose Maria Gimenez's headed clearance ricocheted off Paul Akouokou and flew over the bar, Tello had Betis on level terms with a curling first-time shot from 20 yards.

Gimenez headed against the base of the post for Simeone's side, who were having to adjust to losing Correa and Sime Vrsaljko to injury inside the opening half an hour.

Atleti restored their lead with 61 minutes on the clock through another simple finish for Joao Felix, this time after being teed up by Marcos Llorente.

Copa del Rey finalists Betis pushed for a leveller, but tiredness crept in and Antoine Griezmann pulled the ball back for Lemar to seal three vital points for Atletico in the 80th minute.

 

Manchester United still appear keen to sign Ousmane Dembele if the winger leaves Barcelona at the end of the season.

Dembele was told he could leave Barca in January after refusing to sign a new contract.

However, no clubs came in for the former Borussia Dortmund attacker, who will instead see out the remaining months of his deal at Camp Nou and looks set to leave on a free.

 

TOP STORY – UNITED ARE DEMBELE'S ONLY SUITORS

According to Spanish newspaper Sport, Dembele's options for when he leaves Barca are limited. In fact, the report claims that United are now the only team interested in the France international.

Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea were among the clubs reported to hold an interest in the 24-year-old previously.

However, according to Sport's report, United are in a queue of one as it stands.

ROUND-UP

- Tottenham are now the favourites to sign Nottingham Forest's Middlesbrough loanee Djed Spence, ahead of Arsenal and Bayern Munich, Goal reports.

- Journalist Raffaele Auriemma told TeleClubItalia that Fabian Ruiz is likely to leave Napoli at the end of the season and that Arsenal have made a proposal.

- AS, meanwhile, believes that Barcelona could look to sign left-back Alex Moreno from Real Betis ahead of next season.

- Another defender who looks set to join Barcelona is Andreas Christensen. Fabrizio Romano reports that a deal is close for the centre-back to join on a free from Chelsea.

- Fichajes reports that Real Madrid could become involved in a three-way tussle with Barca and Arsenal for Lille forward Jonathan David.

Joaquin described the coming Copa del Rey final as "a beautiful thing" after he helped Real Betis seal a showdown with his old club, Valencia.

Manuel Pellegrini's side drew 1-1 with Rayo Vallecano in Thursday's semi-final second leg to progress to their fifth Copa final with a 3-2 aggregate win.

A stunning free-kick from Bebe looked to have sent the match into extra time, but Borja Iglesias bundled in an injury-time goal for Betis after substitute Joaquin had found Sergio Canales with a throughball.

Valencia had secured their place in the final on Wednesday, Goncalo Guedes' fine strike securing a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao and a 2-1 aggregate victory.

Joaquin, who will turn 41 in July this year, will now hope to win the Copa for the third time in his career, having done so with Betis back in 2005 and Valencia three years later.

When asked about the prospect of facing his former side, Joaquin said: "My God, what a beautiful thing.

"We're going to enjoy ourselves because we deserve it. On Sunday, we have a difficult game to keep dreaming of the Champions League.

"I have already won a Copa with Betis and another with Valencia, and I've played a final with Fiorentina [in the Coppa Italia in 2014]."

There were wild celebrations inside and outside the Benito Villamarin, and Joaquin promised he would also honour the occasion – after he had seen his family.

"I'm not going out today," he said. "My wife said to me 'I'll wait for you', so I'll go home... to change. If we're kept here late then I'll have to go in the Betis tracksuit!

"But I want to see my wife and my girls, who have suffered like all Betis fans, and like I did. What a massive joy."

Real Betis will face Valencia in the Copa del Rey final after Manuel Pellegrini's men came through a semi-final against Rayo Vallecano.

Leading 2-1 from the first leg last month thanks to William Carvalho's winner, Betis controlled the second leg at the Benito Villamarin before late drama saw it finish 1-1.

The home side were content to keep possession and ensure Rayo had few chances to threaten, with Nabil Fekir mustering the first meaningful effort on target after 72 minutes had been played.

That was until the 80th minute, when former Manchester United forward Bebe unleashed a spectacular strike from a free-kick to level the aggregate scores.

However, in injury time, Borja Iglesias bundled home the equaliser to secure Betis' 3-2 aggregate win.

Betis saw a five-game unbeaten run end in a derby defeat to Sevilla last weekend, but almost put the tie beyond reasonable doubt after just six minutes, Juanmi seeing his header saved.

Isi Palazon fired narrowly wide for Rayo, and Pathe Ciss missed with a header, but there was little to trouble Betis goalkeeper Claudio Bravo in the first half.

Betis looked the more likely after the restart, with Sergio Canales and Carvalho each blasting shots over before Fekir at last produced an effort on target from inside the box, one that Luca Zidane held comfortably.

Andoni Iraola tried to provoke a late fightback, introducing Bebe from the bench, and he responded just three minutes later with a quite stunning strike from 35 yards out that left Bravo with little chance.

Just as extra time loomed, Betis snatched the decider. Bravo picked out Joaquin with a precise kick, the veteran slid the ball to Canales and, as his effort deflected towards the far post, Borja arrived to turn it home under pressure.


What does it mean? Betis on track for beautiful season

Betis have been a thrilling side to watch this season. They scored 47 times in their first 25 LaLiga games of the season, a figure they have only bettered twice in their history.

What Pellegrini's side showed here was nous and discipline. Although Bebe's stunner unsettled their plans, they responded well with late pressure to force Borja's goal and reach the final for a fifth time.

Hit me Bebe one more time

Bebe has had a penchant for the spectacular during his Rayo career, but did anyone truly see that goal coming?

It was an astonishing attempt, the swerve of the ball leaving Bravo clutching at thin air, and it was a goal worthy of at least forcing the extra 30 minutes.

Joaquin sets up dream date

Joaquin had just nine touches of the ball after coming on in the 82nd minute, but one of them was a perfectly weighted pass to release Canales for the equaliser.

The 40-year-old has won this competition twice before: once for Betis, and once with Valencia. He now has the chance to lift it for a third time, if he can beat his old club.

What's next?

Betis host LaLiga champions Atletico Madrid on Sunday, while Rayo head to Cadiz.

Will they? Won't they?

Real Madrid's own stuttering form over the past few weeks has at least helped to retain a hint of unpredictability at LaLiga's summit, but it's difficult to not think Sevilla keep blowing their opportunities.

It's not likely to get any easier on Sunday, either. They headed into this matchday six points behind Madrid, which in itself certainly isn't insurmountable.

But then Madrid beat Rayo Vallecano, and Sevilla's visitors are local rivals Real Betis, who are absolutely flying and chasing a victory that would lift them to within just two points of their neighbours.

Prior to Sevilla's slender – and ultimately irrelevant – 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday in the Europa League, the only side to have beaten them this year is Betis, who were 2-1 victors in the Copa del Rey in mid-January.

Since then injuries have played a significant role for Sevilla and they could conceivably be without Gonzalo Montiel, Diego Carlos, Jules Kounde, Lucas Ocampos, Erik Lamela, Suso, Anthony Martial and Karim Rekik on Sunday.

Several of those have been absent for other games in the last few weeks, and in the cases of Lamela and Suso, for much of the season. As such, since that defeat to Betis, Sevilla have won only two of seven games in all competitions.

But to many, a potential obstacle for Sevilla in their quest for an unlikely title triumph had long been identifiable, and it will only be made even more obvious against Betis.

Replacing the irreplaceable?

In 2020, Sevilla saw Ever Banega bring his second spell at the club to an end. Across his total six years at the club, either side of a single season with Inter, the Argentinian playmaker had been a fundamental part of the team.

A feisty competitor, excellent dribbler and possessor of wonderful vision and passing abilities, Banega's presence meant Sevilla always had a viable creative option in the middle of the pitch, even if using the flanks was a key concept for both Unai Emery and Julen Lopetegui.

Since Banega departed for Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab, Sevilla simply haven't replaced him adequately. Ivan Rakitic, while still capable, isn't the same kind of player; Papu Gomez hasn't had consistency in any one position; and Oliver Torres has been unable to step into his former team-mate's shoes.

 

That creative role in midfield would be considered by most Sevilla fans as the final piece of the puzzle. The other two central positions are filled ably by Joan Jordan, an effective facilitator, and Fernando, who sits deeper to sweep up and help out with Diego Carlos and Kounde, something he's done to great success since joining.

But from a creative standpoint, Sevilla need only glance across town to see what they are missing in that area of the pitch.

Now, of course, the make-up of a midfield can have a major impact on other parts of the team, so were Sevilla to have a more penetrative central trio, there's every reason to suggest they'd not be as solid at the back.

But with Sergio Canales and Nabil Fekir strutting their stuff for Betis, it's difficult to not at least wonder where Sevilla might be with a more positive outlook in midfield.

Sevilla's glaring weakness is Betis' biggest weapon

It cannot be overstated just how good a job Manuel Pellegrini is doing at Betis. Since the end of 2019-20, they have paid a transfer fee for just one player at €3.8million – in the same period, they've lost roughly €60m of talent, yet here they are, looking certainties for a Champions League spot.

Undoubtedly essential to Betis are Canales and Fekir, both of whom were exceptional and scored in the January Copa defeat of Sevilla.

Their influence makes Betis a real danger through the middle of the pitch, an area they are heavily reliant on.

We managed to isolate their key passes that have been played from the central column of the attacking third, and the outcome is impressive.

 

Betis are hugely active in this area, with as many as 36.7 per cent of their key passes being made from the zone in question. Only Real Mallorca (40.2 per cent) are busier here than Betis.

Sevilla, on the other hand, create just 25.2 per cent of their chances from the middle third, which is the lowest proportion of all 20 teams in LaLiga.

In fact, no Sevilla player has managed more than seven key passes in this section of the pitch – four Betis players have more than 10, with Fekir (14), Canales (21) and holding midfielder William Carvalho (12) accounting for 47 between them. That's only 11 fewer than Sevilla's entire squad.

 

Of course, a key element of Sevilla's setup is that they attack from the flanks, but it should be pointed out that Betis' proportion of touches out wide in the attacking half is only 2.2 per cent less, so they cannot be accused of neglecting the wings.

The difference is Sevilla are massively (too?) reliant on attacking from wide positions because they don't possess players with the kind of incisiveness that Betis do in midfield, both in terms of passing and ability on the ball.

 

It all comes back to an inability to replace Banega.

Failure to win at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan on Sunday will surely end Sevilla's title hopes as they would be left nine points adrift of Madrid.

While injuries have many fans pessimistic anyway, few would be surprised if it's in midfield where Sevilla's dreams are crushed.

Barcelona will face Galatasaray in the last 16 of the Europa League.

Xavi's side were 4-2 winners on aggregate over Napoli in the round of 32 after dropping into the competition from the Champions League.

They will now meet the Turkish Super Lig giants, with the first leg at Camp Nou to be played on March 10.

Sevilla, winners of a record six trophies, will face David Moyes' West Ham, while rivals Real Betis will play Eintracht Frankfurt.

Rangers, who shocked Borussia Dortmund in the previous round, take on Red Star and RB Leipzig will play Spartak Moscow. Spartak's home leg must be played at a neutral venue due to the military invasion of Ukraine ordered by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The first legs will be played on March 10, with the exception of Porto versus Lyon and Betis' game with Frankfurt, which will be held a day earlier. The second legs are a week later.

Europa League last 16:

Rangers v Red Star
Braga v Monaco
Porto v Lyon
Atalanta v Bayer Leverkusen
Sevilla v West Ham
Barcelona v Galatasaray
RB Leipzig v Spartak Moscow
Real Betis v Eintracht Frankfurt

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