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Pellegrini makes Real Betis a contender again in Spain

Being a fan of Spanish club Real Betis fan wasn’t much fun not long ago.

While city rival Sevilla stayed near the top in the Spanish league and won multiple Europa League titles, Betis struggled just to remain in the first division.

Then came coach Manuel Pellegrini, and it didn’t take long before Betis’ fans started having reason to cheer again.

The experienced Chilean coach quickly turned the club’s fortunes with his attack-minded formations and entertaining soccer.

Two seasons after being threatened by relegation and finishing 15th in the Spanish league, Betis fights near the top of the standings and is alive in the Europa League and the Copa del Rey.

Betis visits Rayo Vallecano in the first leg of the Copa semifinals on Wednesday, looking to return to the final for the first time since its last title in any competition in 2005.

“There is merit for us to be contending in all three competitions,” Pellegrini said. “But it also brings difficulties and we have to be able to keep adapting.”

Betis had won four in a row — outscoring opponents 14-2 — before losing to Villarreal 2-0 at home in the league on Sunday, when some regular starters were rested by Pellegrini.

“We are in a semifinal, close to a final, and in the league we are in the Champions League places,” Pellegrini said. “We have to be mature about how we handle these situations.”

Pellegrini has been able to restore a winning mentality to a Betis squad that has players such as Nabil Fekir, Borja Iglesias, Sergio Canales, Joaquín Sánchez, Juanmi, Marc Bartra and Hétor Bellerín.

The coach was hired in 2020. The 68-year-old Pellegrini, a former player who is also a civil engineer, was familiar to La Liga having previously coached Villarreal, Málaga and Real Madrid. Villarreal became one of the best teams in Europe under his command in the 2000s, reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2006. It finished second in the league under Pellegrini in 2008. Elsewhere, he won the English Premier League with Manchester City in 2014.

He had a somewhat rough start at Betis but the team made a strong run near the end of his first season to finish sixth and secure a spot in the Europa League. This season, Betis has advanced to the Europa knockout round from a group including Celtic, Bayer Leverkusen and Ferencvaros. It will next face Zenit St. Petersburg.

In La Liga, Betis has won 12 of 23 matches to lie third place behind Sevilla and leader Real Madrid. It has the league's second-best attack with 41 goals, behind the 48 from Madrid.

It eliminated rival Sevilla in the round of 16 of the Copa, and routed Real Sociedad 4-0 as a visitor in the single-elimination quarterfinal. Betis was eliminated by eventual champion Valencia in the last four of the 2019 Copa.

The team was punished with the closure of a section of its Benito Villamarín Stadium after a piece of PVC thrown by a fan hit a Sevilla player in the head during the Copa match last month. The game was suspended and resumed a day later behind closed doors.

Betis will face a Rayo team playing in the Copa semifinals for the first time in four decades and trying to reach the final for the first time.

The modest Madrid club, led by Colombia veteran striker Radamel Falcao, boasts one of the best home records in Spanish soccer, with nine wins and only one loss from 12 matches at Vallecas Stadium.

ATHLETIC-VALENCIA

Athletic Bilbao hosts Valencia in the first leg of the other semifinal, with the Basque Country team trying to reach its third straight final.

It lost to Basque rival Sociedad in 2020 and to Barcelona last season. This year it eliminated the Catalan club in the round of 16 and Real Madrid in the quarterfinals.

Valencia, an eight-time Copa winner, is back in the last four after winning its last title in 2019.

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