PETE JENSON: Xavi has it all to prove in his first El Clasico as Barcelona boss having taken the blame for recent dropped points… but beating Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia would give him lift-off
- Barcelona conceded a late equaliser to drop two points away at Granada
- Xavi’s side are currently 17 points behind rivals Real Madrid in the LaLiga table
- Barca face Real in Saudi Arabia in the Spanish Super Cup semis on Wednesday
- Barca have lost their last four games against Real – but must compete in Riyadh
The last time Barcelona played the Spanish Super Cup final-four event in Saudi Arabia it sealed the fate of coach Ernesto Valverde, who was sacked after failing to make it through the semi-final.
That will not be Xavi’s fate whatever happens in Wednesday’s El Clasico, but it’s still a game that will go a long way to deciding how his first season gets judged by the club’s supporters.
Beat Real Madrid in his first match against them as a coach and his most important task will be to keep everyone’s, including rambunctious president Joan Laporta’s, feet on the ground.
Wednesday’s El Clasico will go a long way to deciding how Xavi’s first season gets judged
Midfielder Gavi (right) became the second youngest player in the club’s history to be sent off against Granada, and the team and boss are reeling after dropping points in that game
Lose, particularly if it’s a heavy defeat, and he will be trying to lift the gloom that will descend on the club currently 17 points behind Real Madrid in the table.
No Barcelona player would get in the current Madrid side, with the possible exception of Sergio Busquets for an underperforming Casemiro. Elsewhere the contrasts are cruelly unfavourable.
Vinicius Jr was electric again on Saturday as Madrid beat Valencia while his opposite number at Barcelona, Ousmane Dembele, misplaced 14 passes in another underwhelming performance against Granada.
Karim Benzema scored two more at the weekend taking his season’s league tally to 17, while Barcelona’s top scorer is the out-of-sorts Memphis Depay with eight goals. Dembele and Benzema have 29 goals between them – only two less than Barcelona’s entire squad.
In the centre of defence, Eder Militao and David Alaba have banished memories of the Sergio Ramos-Raphael Varane partnership; while Barcelona will be without Eric Garcia, who was starting to find his best form and impose himself as a defensive leader, but is now out for at least five weeks.
Ronald Araujo has recently had hand surgery but could play with a cast alongside Gerard Pique, whose enthusiasm for defending himself and the team has spiked both on and off the pitch in recent weeks.
Xavi addresses his squad in training in Riyadh on Tuesday ahead of the Super Cup semi-final
As a player Xavi beat Real Madrid freely but now he has to help his players do that as a coach
In midfield Carlo Ancelotti can call on the hugely experienced trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric while Xavi must rely in part on the brilliant but still raw Gavi, who became the second youngest player in the club’s history to be sent off when he saw red on Saturday aged just 17 years and 156 days.
The fact that Xavi left him on while he was on a yellow, and the manager’s decision to take off Luuk de Jong, who was holding the ball up well, and replace him with the ineffective Memphis, meant he was made to shoulder some of the blame for Barcelona conceding a late equaliser.
Barca have now drawn as many as they have won this season.
Xavi has reluctantly used De Jong because of limited alternatives but now Ansu Fati is fit again and that could change.
Memphios Depay has been out of sorts and Barca’s attack is not providing enough goals
By contrast, Karim Benzema (centre) and Real Madrid are flying and scoring freely
The 19-year-old has not played since September but has travelled and could start on Wednesday. He will not be 100 per cent after such a long lay-off but his innate ability to deliver in big games means he’s worth using if only off the bench or from the start for an hour.
Xavi has promised he will feature, but also warned about over-using him and then losing him for the season.
The prospect of finishing the season with Ansu in harness with Ferran Torres excites the Barca coach but he knows he has to be patient with both. Torres will not play the semi-final.
Ousmane Dembele misplaced 14 passes in an underwhelming performance against Granada
Ansu Fati has not played since September but has travelled and could start on Wednesday
Barcelona announced on Monday that Samuel Umiti agreeing to a contract renewal, which reduces his salary, allows the club to register Torres – but the former Manchester City forward has still not been given the Covid all-clear after testing positive shortly after his presentation and has not travelled.
Pedri has also stayed in Barcelona, still awaiting a Covid negative. Both players could join up with the squad if Barca make the final but both are, like Fati, coming back from medium-term injuries and will not be fully match fit.
One player who did look 100 per cent this weekend was Dani Alves. He will be 39 in May but the fire still seems to be burning brightly and as a multiple trophy winner this is another opportunity to add to the collection.
Dani Alves’ fire still seems to be burning brightly and he can add to his vast trophy collection
He will also have that era when Barcelona beat Madrid regularly still in his muscle memory – Xavi must hope he can unlock it and let it spread to the younger players who barely remember those days.
Barcelona have lost their last four games against Real Madrid and with so many problems Xavi will be given the benefit of the doubt in defeat – but the side must compete.
Barcelona have lost their last four games against Real Madrid (pictured is boss Carlo Ancelotti)
‘This is a potential ramp for Barcelona’ said one Catalan paper suggesting the team could really launch its season with a win over the old enemy in a competition the world will be watching and with silverware at stake.
But for those very reasons – global audience, bitter rival as opponent – a stinging defeat will hurt for some time, take some of the gloss off Xavi’s new regime, and cast a shadow over what is already going to be a tough second half of the season.
It’s a seven-hour flight back from Riyadh but it will seem a lot longer if Barcelona have to make it after the semi-final instead of after the final.
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