Barcelona look to tighten grip on top four as good vibes return under Xavi

AFP , Friday 4 Mar 2022

Barcelona will not win La Liga, the Champions League or even the Copa del Rey and yet still they could make this season a success.

Xavi Hernandez
Xavi Hernandez s Barcelona sit fourth in La Liga ahead of Sunday s game against Elche (AFP)

Trailing Real Madrid by 15 points in La Liga after going out of the Champions League in the group stage and the cup in the last 16 would usually amount to a full-blown crisis at Barca, regardless of whether they go on to win the Europa League in May.

Yet two-and-a-half years of relative mediocrity have vaporised once-high expectations while a stream of big-name departures, including Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain, have hammered home the stark reality of the club's financial crisis.

Xavi Hernandez certainly benefited from those reduced expectations during the first few weeks of his tenure, when glimpses of progress were crowded out by a trudge of uninspiring performances, the like of which would not have looked out of place under his predecessor Ronald Koeman.

"It's proving harder than we thought," Xavi said in December.

Like Koeman, though, Xavi enjoyed a wave of goodwill early on and still does, with support and optimism offered to him more readily by fans because so many hope he can be the ideological successor to Pep Guardiola.

But in recent weeks there has been good reason for a sudden surge of excitement at Barca, who sit fourth in La Liga ahead of Sunday's game at 13th-placed Elche.

When Xavi took charge in November, Barcelona were ninth, a leaky defence made all the more costly by a stuttering attack.

With 13 games left, they will be third if they win their game in hand over Real Betis and it is still not inconceivable they finish second by overhauling Sevilla, who are nine points ahead, having played a game more.

Barca have not lost a match in 90 minutes since being beaten by Bayern Munich on December 8. They have won their last three games against Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Napoli, the latter a particularly impressive 4-2 win in Naples that sent them through to the Europa League quarter-finals.

In each of those games they scored four goals, the first time Barca have scored four in three consecutive matches since 2017, when Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez were responsible for 11 of the 12.

"We're creating chances, converting them," said Xavi. "Scoring goals hasn't been a problem for us."

- January additions make difference -

The forward line now may not be as sprinkled with star-dust now but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traore and Ferran Torres -- all of them signed in January -- have brought an impetus and edge that was lacking before.

The return to fitness, and favour, of Ousmane Dembele has been a huge bonus.

Meanwhile, Pedri is getting better and better. "In terms of pure talent, there is nobody better in the world," said Xavi.

There was a moment in the second half against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday when Pedri escaped from the touchline by rolling a backheel through his marker's legs.

The fans lucky enough to witness it up close went apoplectic, not so much celebrating as exploding into fits of laughter, joy and disbelief.

For Barca, it was a moment to savour, not least because it felt like the crystallisation of a growing sense in recent weeks that after one of the most dispiriting periods in its history, the club is enjoying itself again.

If Xavi can marry that uplift with a top-four finish or winning the Europa League, his opening season as coach will have been a resounding success.

"It's exciting for me that the fans feel identified with the team," said Xavi. "You can lose or draw but that's the most important thing."

Barca can steal a march on their rivals this weekend given Atletico Madrid visit Real Betis on Sunday in a battle of fifth against third. Villarreal, also in the hunt for the top four, are away on Saturday against Osasuna.

Real Madrid face Real Sociedad later on Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu, four days before their second leg in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain. Sevilla play at Alaves on Friday.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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