Can Barca overcome on-field fatigue, off-field chaos to beat Real Madrid in Copa del Rey?
There is only one other club in the world where, if the coach had a seven-point lead in the title race, had already won the trophy by crushing their fiercest rivals, and with the Cup semi-finals ahead, the word “crisis” would be within a million miles of the media.
Unfortunately for Xavi Hernandez, that other club is Real Madrid – Madrid, who have suddenly closed the gap on the leaders of La Liga and have begun to look capable of hunting leaders who look like favorites to keep their Champions League crown, and who are next for Barcelona in this Copa del Rey semi-final this Thursday.
In football, as in comedy, timing is everything.
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It’s been weeks since Barcelona dominated Madrid in Saudi Arabia; now they look like potential victims. The exclusion from European football at the hands of Manchester United even after two classic matches and the declining quality of football since the defeat of Madrid in the Super Cup, followed by a defeat against relegation-threatened Almeria over the weekend, all make hungry critics be Ready to Enjoy the budding Catalan manager if his team, which seems quite possible, is beaten at the Bernabéu on Thursday.
Barcelona will play not only the first leg Clasico The semi-final looks out of shape, both physically and mentally broken, but they will make it without the injured Pedri, Ousmane Dembele and most likely Robert Lewandowski. It’s a comically bad time because ever since Xavi took charge of the Camp Nou, Clasico The pendulum swung decisively towards a more coherent and dexterous team.
The idea that this is a type of “derby” match where “the form comes out of the window” has not been true in recent times. The side you expect to win in the last five classic (including one friendly) since Xavi became the manager of Barcelona, did it.
So far, his record is as follows: played five, won three, lost two. Of these, last summer’s friendly in Las Vegas is by far the most expendable. Barcelona won 1-0 thanks to Rafinha’s magical goal, but Real fell far behind the Catalans in pre-season, played a terrific match for Barcelona for 55 minutes… and then fizzled out. Naturally.
During the two victories that Xavi has enjoyed as Barça coach, Madrid have been sluggish without a doubt. Fitness, sharpness, stamina: these were the absolute key factors when Gavi and Pedri had a high-tempo pressing masterclass to win the Spanish Super Cup 3-1 in January.
Admittedly, a 4-0 win at the Bernabéu a year ago was skewed by Carlo Ancelotti’s misguided concept of using Luka Modric as a fake center forward and playing in a desperately risky high defensive line. It was a mistake that the Italian admitted and apologized after the match. Madrid were without Karim Benzema, looked shabby from the intense off-season fitness forced on them by their Italian guru Antonio Pintus, and had just played two grueling matches against PSG where they looked inept and played like they were relegated for 150. minutes of a 180-minute fight.
(In context, note that Pintus’ methods of making players feel physically punished but then become increasingly indomitable were good enough to catapult Real Madrid to those amazing comeback victories against Chelsea and Manchester City. They involve accumulation (It’s also worth noting that Real Madrid suffered the same physical punishment after Pintus in January when they looked lead-footed in their Super Bowl final loss.)
Make no mistake: in each of these victories, Xavi read his cards brilliantly, and his particular match philosophy was just perfect. But in games like Clasico, any significant physical/athletic advantage is greatly magnified and gives one of the two teams a chance to win that is almost impossible to miss. The one most likely to please Madrid this week.
In two classic Xavi lost as a coach White excelled in power, pace, pressing and counter-attacking that left their blue garnet opponents chugging and panting. The main tormentors were Fede Valverde, Karim Benzema and Vinicius. Evidence confirmed by Manchester United over the past two weeks has shown how Barcelona can suffer from speed and intense pressing, and suggests the league leaders will do the right thing by returning to Camp Nou next month with a solid chance of win on aggregate.
But what seems important and is simultaneously ignored is the context in which Xavi has to work.
Even with his coaching successes and trophies won in Qatar, this is his first full season among the European elite, with all the demands, pressure, focus and criticism that such a job inevitably entails. In the process, his resources were either shrunk or hurt not only by his club’s massive €1bn debt, but also by the hawkish austerity of La Liga’s financial Fair Play.
Last summer, thanks to a series of convoluted asset mortgage deals, Barcelona significantly increased the playing strength of a failed team, although the club’s accountants also gratefully jumped at the opportunity to cut costs during the season. Antoine Griezmann, an exciting match for Atlético, was sent off due to a crushing defeat. Veteran defender Gerard Pique abruptly ended his career, Memphis Depay and Hector Bellerin also left. However, it was announced last week that La Liga believes Xavi’s employers should cut costs by at least another €200m or increase revenues by a phenomenal and proportionately related degree.
Another saga or three of Frenkie De Jong’s style is looming over the summer, and I mean predatory clubs may quite rightly realize that this is a buyer’s market and that they have a chance to snatch Barcelona’s best talent. Meanwhile, as Xavi tries to make his mark and continues to push the playful side of things out of the wasteland he inherited, trying to teach his stars by learning from his own mistakes, two of his most prominent talents don’t seem to quite understand what their future holds.
Gavi’s registration as a first-team player had to be confirmed through legal action in court because La Liga opposed his legitimacy, while Alex Balde, whose contract was due to be renewed and significantly increased, is another victim of the inconsistency meanwhile what Barcelona think they can do and what La Liga tells them what they are allowed to do. This is a very worrying situation for the coach, the players and others who think their contracts will also be renegotiated soon.
No one is really talking about it or revealing the hard truth, but the club is also not only about to lose the Camp Nou – one of their most profitable assets – for a couple of seasons, they are going to invest in it while losing millions of for their temporary move to the Olympic Stadium on the hill of Montjuïc from next season. Ahead, Xavi & Co. will have worse playing surface, poor atmosphere, smaller crowds, a field surrounded by a running track and much less modern match conditions, while the main stadium, which costs several hundred million euros, is being renovated. .
How long it will take, as opposed to how long it will take, is fertile territory for cynics.
Meanwhile, a scandal erupted. No, not the one where the local police ransacked the home and office of former club president Josep María Bartomeu – the one where the national tax authorities appear to have found payments for two decades of “judging evaluations and advice” paid to the individual. who was Vice President of the Referee Committee of the Spanish Football Association. There has been a flurry of bragging and pleas of innocence from the club, but anyone who says Barcelona’s image hasn’t been terribly tarnished lives on another planet. Criminal investigations are underway, and anyone who imagines that all this is not an absolutely huge waste of energy, confidence, attention and resilience of Xavi, his staff and playing squad is equally mistaken.
However, some simple facts remain. In just 46 games in the history of any Barcelona manager in La Liga, only Luis Enrique’s treble-winning team has scored more points than Xavi. Oh, and the gap between them was exactly three. One win.
In their first 46 La Liga appearances, Xavi and Pep Guardiola have scored the same number of points: 109 of 34 wins, seven draws and five losses. That’s right: the same Guardiola who had at his disposal the best versions of Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Pique and Sergio Busquets.
Guardiola’s first 46 matches at Barcelona, like Luis Enrique, led to a historic treble in 2009. Today, Xavi is adapting the style of football that Guardiola plays; he does not abandon it, but adapts it, and often radically. However, his basic ideas of pressing, possession, position and accuracy generally work well. Especially while he develops, revises, learns and takes hits.
To do so successfully in his first full season in La Liga against a backdrop of near-anarchist chaos is very impressive. Only a myopic, prejudiced, or incompetent person would fail to recognize this.
If his team is defeated on Thursday, it won’t be much of a surprise, or anything close to disaster. However, the Spanish football media is sure to jump at the opportunity to scream about the crisis, toss Xavi’s ideas in the dock and completely ignore the fact that something extremely interesting and potentially successful is being built against a chaotic and unsettling backdrop. Barcelona.