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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Barcelona’s progress will be tested against Man United in Europa League tie

Xavi Hernandez was quick to play down suggestions that Barcelona are La Liga champions-elect. The Catalans might hold an 11-point advantage at the top of the Spanish top flight, but the former midfielder highlighted just how far his team still has to go to get their hands on the trophy. “It is not an insurmountable distance, there are 17 games left,” he said.

Despite Xavi’s comments, it would take a collapse for Barcelona not to finish top of La Liga after building up such a lead. Their progress over the last few months has been substantial and Real Madrid haven’t been able to keep up with their fiercest rivals. It is therefore jarring that Barca are preparing for a Europa League knockout tie this week, rather than their standard Champions League fare.

This season’s Champions League group stage exposed the weaknesses in Xavi’s team. It didn’t help that Barcelona were drawn in a difficult group along with Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, but their failure to make the round of 16 was still a disappointment. Barca didn’t do enough to get through.

Thursday’s Europa League knockout round tie against Manchester United will feel like a Champions League test, though. Erik Ten Hag’s team are currently playing at a high level, sitting third in the Premier League table and have a Carabao Cup final against Newcastle United on the horizon to look forward to.

Manchester United will give Barcelona a yardstick with which to measure their development. Both teams are on an upward trajectory, as Ten Hag and Xavi try to build a team and impose a coherent system at clubs that have lost their way in recent years. There is a lot of overlap between Barca and United at this moment in time.

Much of Barcelona’s improvement has come in midfield where they now have the intelligence and positional discipline to press opponents out of possession and open up pockets of space when the ball is at their feet. Xavi has built around Gavi and Pedri in the centre of the pitch, with the latter in particular given freedom to find space and exploit it.

Ten Hag is surely envious of the goal threat provided by Robert Lewandowski, with the Polish striker still one of the best number nines in the European game right now. Manchester United, on the other hand, are still looking for a long-term solution up front. Although Marcus Rashford is in excellent goal-scoring form, relying on him to produce all of the team’s chances is a risky strategy.

Ousmane Dembele had given Barcelona an outlet in the wide positions until the French winger suffered an injury. In his place, Raphinha has stepped into the team in recent weeks with the Brazilian international finally finding form after facing criticism for some of his performances following last summer’s transfer from Leeds United.

Defensively, Barca still look vulnerable to quick transitions by opponents, which will give Manchester United hope ahead of Thursday’s Europa League meeting at the Camp Nou, but Xavi has settled on possession being the best method of keeping the ball away from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen’s goal.

Indeed, Barcelona have conceded just seven goals in 21 La Liga matches this season and have kept clean sheets in six of their last seven matches in all competitions. Players like Jordi Alba and Eric Garcia remain vulnerable when running towards their own goal, but Xavi wants his team to keep possession for long enough that Barca rarely face such situations.

There are still some questions that Xavi has yet to find an answer to. Barcelona don’t have the full-backs to play the expansive game their manager envisages, with Jules Kounde currently operating on the right and Alejandro Balde on the left. Kounde is a central defender by trade while Balde is still raw at 19 years old.

Barcelona have experienced issues controlling possession towards the end of matches. This hasn’t been reflected in their recent results, but game management has been an issue and Manchester United might be a strong enough opponent to make the Catalans pay for this. Barca have the technicians to be better at this.

Many at the Camp Nou feel the Europa League is beneath Barcelona, but the competition could be the perfect way for Xavi and his players to demonstrate how far they have come since crashing out of the Champions League. Their meeting with Manchester United will carry more weight than a knockout round match in Europe’s second-tier competition usually would.

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