Rakitic the difference if Messi, Suarez or Neymar misfire at Barcelona
Barcelona are one win closer to the Spanish title, and for once it wasn't their front three that defined the occasion.
Instead, it was Ivan Rakitic who played the key role in the Blaugrana's 2-0 victory over Real Betis. First, in taking a great first touch then going on a surging run that provoked a foul and second yellow card from defender Heiko Westermann. Then, by ghosting behind the Betis defence and taking advantage of some miscommunication at the back to break the deadlock, finally undoing the Andalucian resistance with 50 minutes on the clock.
The strike took Rakitic's tally to nine for the season, making him Barcelona's highest scorer in 2015-16 behind Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar, and improving upon his return from the previous year, which stopped at eight. Yet more than those landmarks, what will really have made that goal on Saturday so sweet for the midfielder is the opponent it came against.
He may be Croatian, but Rakitic is a Sevillista at heart, and downing Betis will have sent him back to Catalonia in a particularly good mood. The No.4 was still only 22 when he arrived in Sevilla in January 2011, spending three-and-a-half seasons at the city's eponymous club before joining Barca in 2014. In truth he has never fully left the Andalucian capital, maintaining a home there as well as a strong family connection through his wife.
Nor will he ever leave the memories of Sevilla's supporters, and vice-versa. The player's first return to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan after signing for Barcelona came in April 2015, and it was an emotional occasion to say the least. Greeted with a banner reading "this will always be your home," he ended the day in his underwear, giving away every item of clothing he was wearing to supporters and embracing a number of the club's Biris Norte ultras on the first tier, just behind the stadium's north goal.
Rakitic is nothing less than a Sevilla legend. The club's first foreign captain since Diego Maradona, he was a key figure in winning their first European trophy in seven years, as well as their first trophy, full stop, in four, when he led them to the Europa League title in 2014. Named man of the match at the end of the final against Benfica, he scored three goals and assisted three more in the European campaign, and perhaps most pertinently in relation to last weekend's events, scored the penalty that eliminated Real Betis from the last 16 after a brutally even Sevilla derby.
It was no surprise, therefore, that the Betis support booed his every touch on Saturday, even before the goal, his fourth career strike against them. Rakitic and Betis have history, big time. As a Sevilla captain he broke their hearts with regularity, forcing them to watch as the city's red and white club ascended towards the top in European football once more while Betis were on their way down to the Segunda. That came at a cost. The Croatian once owned a thriving restaurant in the south of the city, serving a mixture of Spanish dishes and specialities from his nation, but it was forced to close "because it was so close to the Betis stadium that I had problems with their fans," he explained. He had originally planned to open another restaurant in a more neutral area, but Barcelona came calling.
Even now that he has moved on to Catalonia, it is impossible to forget Rakitic's Sevilla past. His every word separates him from the crowd, a distinctly Andalucian accent ringing out when he speaks Spanish, the end of words swallowed like a southerner.
Then there is the presence of his wife, Raquel Mauri, Sevilla born and bred, who he met when she was working as a waitress in the hotel he stayed in during his medical for the Nervionenses. On the pitch, there are also growing shades of the style of play he showed off at his former club. Initially more of a workhorse at the Camp Nou, as Barcelona's front three have tired, he has spent more time in advanced positions like he used to at Sevilla, exemplified by the fact that six of his nine goals this season have been scored since January.
The ninth strike will have been cheered just as much in the bars of the Nervion district of Sevilla as it was in Barcelona. Increasingly this season, it seems that when Suarez, Messi and Neymar aren't the difference-makers, Rakitic is the answer.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.