Tactical Insights

Barcelona visits Betis needing a win after being demolished in ‘clasico’ by Madrid

BARCELONA, Spain — Xavi Hernández returned to Barcelona as its soccer savior just over two years ago and succeeded in stabilizing a club in crisis by winning its first trophies since the traumatic exit of Lionel Messi.

But the shine is wearing off the former midfield great with Barcelona struggling to defend its Spanish league title and having lost both of its “clasico” games against Real Madrid so far this season.

A loss to Madrid always burns in Barcelona, but Madrid’s 4-1 dismantling of Barcelona in the final of the Spanish Super Cup last weekend has put Xavi under immense pressure. The game may have been played in Saudi Arabia, but the impact of the lopsided defeat hit hardest back home.

Barcelona club president Joan Laporta met with Xavi and his players on Wednesday to — in the words of the club — “raise their spirits after defeat in the Spanish Super Cup.”

Xavi said that Laporta had “conveyed to us a message of hope and of his faith in the players and staff.”

Barcelona has a must-win match when it visits third-division club Unionistas later Thursday in the Copa del Rey round of 16. Barcelona then has arguably the toughest game of any of the top-five teams in the Spanish league this weekend when it visits Real Betis on Sunday.

Barcelona is in fourth place in the league at eight points behind leader Girona and seven points behind Madrid. Girona has played one more game than both Madrid and Barcelona.

Betis is coached by Manuel Pellegrini and led by former Madrid midfield Isco Alarcón, who is reviving his career after joining the Seville-based club this season. Betis is in seventh place and has yet to lose in 10 homes games in the league this campaign.

Despite being outclassed by Madrid, Xavi tried to focus on the other chances his team has to lift a trophy this season with Barcelona set to face Napoli in the Champions League round-of-16 next month.

“When I joined (Barcelona) they told me the goal was to finish fourth, and we finished second. Last season the goal was to win the league, and we did that and also won the (Spanish) Super Cup, surpassing expectations,” he said Wednesday. “The goal this year was to win trophies, and we are halfway through the season and the three most important ones are all still to play for.”

Xavi put the emphasis on improving a defense that could do nothing to stop Madrid forward Vinícius Júnior from scoring a hat trick in Riyadh on Sunday.

“We can’t let in so many goals or make things easy for the opposition,” Xavi said. “Our deep pressure didn’t work out, we all got it wrong, me more than anyone.”

Madrid is looking to get a comfortable win on Sunday when it hosts last-place Almeria, the only team in Spain’s topflight to remain winless through 20 rounds.

Girona will try to stay on top, also on Sunday, when it hosts relegation-threatened Sevilla.

Third-place Athletic Bilbao visits Valencia on Saturday. Fifth-place Atletico Madrid is at Granada on Monday.

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