DERMOT CORRIGAN: Betis back from the brink

“We were too emotional in the first game, and we were overwhelmed,” said Real Betis coach Pepe Mel ahead of Friday’s clash with Sevilla, where his side were looking to avenge their 5-1 hammering in November’s previous city derby.

He took his side out of the city to prepare away from all the hype, tried to play down the significance of the game all week, and then saw his charges fall 3-0 behind inside 30 minutes.

Sevilla’s Croatian midfielder Ivan Rakitic took advantage of goalkeeping and refereeing errors for the first two. Alvaro Negredo converted a superb Jose Reyes pass to make it three.

The 1,300 fans in red at the Estadio Benito Villamarin were making more noise than the 43,000 home supporters. The visitors had practice in lording it over their neighbours. Over the last decade Sevilla have won two Uefa Cups and two Copa del Reys. Meanwhile, Betis went down to La Segunda in 2009.

But relegation marked a turning point for the verdiblanco half of the city. 80,000 fans marched through Sevilla city centre, helping to oust long-time owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera.

The courts appointed administrators to the club under Spain’s famous Ley Concursal, and a clear out of high earning under-performers followed. Mel arrived and put together a team of youth products and cast-offs or loan signings from other clubs. They returned to the Primera Division in 2011, consolidated last season, and went into Friday’s game seventh in the table, three places ahead of Sevilla.

Such change has been lacking across the city at the Estadio Sanchez Pizjuan. President Jose Maria del Nido remains in charge despite being sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in jail in December 2011 for embezzling public funds. Debts have mounted to over €100 million.

So the feeling has been one of a power shift in the city. But at 3-0 down on Friday night it did not feel like it. Then Betis got one back, Colombian forward Dorlan Pabon taking advantage of a mistake by Sevilla midfielder Gary Medel. Suddenly there was belief around the Villamarin again.

Mel threw on another forward in Jorge Molina at half time, and he (fortunately) won the penalty converted by Ruben Castro for 2-3. Medel was then sent off.

With the home crowd now convulsed, 20 minutes of incessant pressure culminated in Nigerian midfielder Nosa Igiebor heading in an 88th-minute equaliser.

This was treated like a winner by the home fans, mostly because it allowed them to save face and maintain their six-point advantage in the table. Betis now look quite likely to secure European football next season, and perhaps more importantly finish ahead of their local rivals for the first time since 2005.

Not that all is completely rosy at Betis, and the wage structure imposed by the administrators means better players such as midfielders Benat Etxebarria and David Canas could be tempted away by fatter Primera League salaries. Even still, fans have faith in Mel to continue to make the best of the situation.

Across town Unai Emery, Sevilla’s sixth coach in three years, faces a tougher situation. Negredo and Rakitic could both be sold this summer, with money going to pay debts.

Del Nido appears to be going nowhere, despite increasing fans’ anger at his misdeeds.

Friday’s 90 pulsating minutes at the Villamarin showed how quickly things can turn around in football.

But the pendulum has been swinging Betis’ way for some years now.

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