Barcelona are top of La Liga going into Sunday’s showdown with Real Madrid – and yet Xavi and his players are under enormous pressure
Barcelona president Joan Laporta addressed the club’s general assembly last Sunday and proudly declared, “Together, we have saved the club.” For how long, though?
Barca’s bank balance is back under the spotlight; Wednesday’s dramatic 3-3 draw with Inter has seen to that. Xavi admitted after a calamitous defensive display, “Mistakes are very costly in the Champions League.” But especially for a club in such a perilous financial position.
Barca may well be top of La Liga going into Sunday’s Clasico, but the Champions League is where the real money is to be made, and right now the cash-strapped Catalans are in danger of missing out on the lucrative knockout stages for the second consecutive season.
That is extremely problematic for Barca, who expected to make at least €20.2 million (£17.5m/$19.75) from this season’s campaign by reaching the quarter-finals – they were literally counting on that money, factoring that figure into their budget for 2022-23.
Granted, Barca’s hopes of reaching the last 16 are not over yet, at least not mathematically. They are still only three points behind Inter with two games play play.
However, the Italians obviously now boast the superior head-to-head record, meaning they only need to defeat Group C’s whipping boys Viktoria Plzen at home on matchday five to progress.
The economic ramifications of an early exit from Europe’s elite competition will, thus, hang over Xavi and his players for the best part of two weeks.
Sergio Busquets openly admitted that Wednesday’s result has even cast a shadow over the Clasico. “It’s clear that this could affect us,” he acknowledged. “We have to lift ourselves.”
Barca will, of course, take heart from the fact that they went to Madrid last season and routed the runaway Liga leaders 4-0, with Gerard Pique promptly proclaiming: “We are back.”
Certainly, Barca have looked more and more like their old selves since Xavi replaced Ronald Koeman as coach last year. However, he now finds himself in a rather unusual position.
Xavi’s domestic results are almost flawless – Barca have accumulated 22 of a possible 24 points in La Liga to date, conceding just one solitary goal in the process – and yet he is now under scrutiny going into the Clasico because of Barca’s disastrous European campaign.
There have been mitigating circumstances, of course. Barca played well in losing 2-0 at Bayern Munich, while their defence has been hit hard by injuries sustained during the international break. They were also on the wrong end of two dreadful VAR decisions in their 1-0 loss at San Siro.
However, Inter themselves were on the verge of a full-blown crisis going into their double-header with Barca, having lost four of their first eight Serie A fixtures. Simone Inzaghi’s future was being called into question and yet he is now being praised to the hilt in Italy after tactically outwitting Xavi at Camp Nou.
Indeed, Inter were in total control of the game when Robert Lewandowski’s deflected strike sparked a wild finale. Even then, the visitors should have won, with Kristjan Asllani squandering an incredible opportunity in the dying seconds to make it 4-3 – or at least leave Robin Gosens with a tap-in.
As it was, Marc-Andre ter Stegen came to Barca’s rescue, just as he had in their highly fortuitous 1-0 win over Celta Vigo last weekend.
Given their sudden defensive concerns, it’s no surprise to hear that the fit-again Jules Kounde will be immediately restored to the starting line-up if he is given the green light to face Madrid. The versatile Frenchman has been sorely missed, given Andreas Christensen, Ronald Araujo and Hector Bellerin are all presently out of action.
Kounde, of course, was one of the players that Barca had to bend over backwards to sign during the summer. Despite generating €867m (£750m/$850m) from pulling economic ‘levers’ (the sale of club assets), Barca still had to deposit a “personal guarantee” of €10m (£8.6/$9.8m) with LFP in order to register the former Sevilla man – which provides an illuminating insight into the club’s financial situation.
Laporta defended his bailout plan again last Sunday, arguing that desperate times call for desperate measures. Or, as he put it, “exceptional measures in an exceptional period that required bravery and audacity to reverse the sporting situation.”
However, he also tellingly acknowledged that having spent nearly €160m (£138m/$156m) on transfer fees, this “has to be the season to lay the foundations to return to a leading role in football”.
Taking control of the Liga title race by beating Madrid at the Bernabeu would certainly help in that regard. But the threat of Champions League elimination will continue to hang over the entire club no matter what happens on Sunday evening.
That is the bizarre and highly-pressurized environment that Xavi and his players now find themselves in, where losses have a double meaning and nearly every error is expensive.
One would be forgiven for wondering if it were really worth pulling all those levers…