The first of the three vital El Clasico fixtures in the second half of the season arrives on Thursday night when Barcelona travel to the capital to take on their arch-rivals Real Madrid in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-final.
So far this season, both sides have split the spoils with one win each. While the European Champions got the better of the Blaugrana in La Liga, Xavi’s men got their revenge in the final of the Spanish Super Cup.
Real Madrid enter the game as slight favourites this time around, form, fitness and fortitude all considered. However, the Clasico always presents surprises and could prove to be a special night for the Azullgranas.
Xavi has many aspects to ponder ahead of the crucial matchup, and Barça Universal brings you three talking points ahead of the team’s encounter with Real Madrid.
1. The need to get a grip
After a long and impressive unbeaten streak of 18 games, Barcelona seem to have somewhat lost their way. All of a sudden, the Blaugrana have lost their last two fixtures and appear more vulnerable than they have ever been in recent months.
The defeat against Manchester United was forgivable to an extent, for Erik Ten Hag’s men were simply superior on the night. While Barcelona mounted a strong first-half display, the hosts at Old Trafford played like their life depended on it after the restart.
To carry the disappointment of their European exit into the next league game, however, is unforgivable. Days after their elimination from the Europa League, the La Liga leaders lost to Almeria and let go of a glorious chance to go ten points clear on the standings.
At the Power Horse Stadium, the Catalans were shambolic. They showed no drive or desire to win, were sloppy in the final third and recorded just one tame shot on target in the ninety minutes.
Barcelona are not in the best of form or fitness heading into the Clasico. The Azulgranas must overcome their mental block if they are to come out of the Santiago Bernabeu with a favourable result. Another display comparable to the weekend would end any hopes of a Cup triumph.
2. Three top guns absent
While almost all players on the field have directly contributed to Barcelona’s strong run in La Liga, some individuals have had an enhanced role in their success.
The defence has undoubtedly been one of the team’s strongest fortes. However, it is Pedri, Ousmane Dembele and Robert Lewandowski that have carried the men in garnet-and-blue in the final third.
The young midfielder operates as the team’s primary source of creativity in the middle of the park and single-handedly breaks open defences for his partners. His security and composure on the ball are important facets of the team in possession.
Meanwhile, Dembele and Lewandowski are the two main pillars up front. The Pole’s lethal goalscoring and the Frenchman’s driving runs have been the source of most of Barcelona’s goals under Xavi.
On Thursday night, the manager will have none of the three players at his disposal. While the younger two players have been injured for a while now, Lewy’s setback only came to light recently as perhaps the biggest roadblock.
Xavi now has just three options in attack for the Clasico – Ansu Fati, Raphinha and Ferran Torres. With only young Angel Alcaron and Estanis Pedrola on the bench, it remains to be seen as to which player steps up and takes the opportunity.
In midfield, meanwhile, the manager could look to Sergio Busquets, Frenkie de Jong and Gavi. Though there is depth, in theory, with Franck Kessie and Pablo Torre, none can replicate Pedri’s impact.
3. Managing the away leg
Barcelona do not have the best of histories with big away games. Xavi Hernandez may have overseen the club’s most impressive away run in Spain, but the story has been different on the big night.
At San Siro, Allianz Arena, Old Trafford and the Santiago Bernabeu, the Catalans have come out second-best this season. The last time they took on Real Madrid in the Spanish capital, they returned home with a 3-1 thumping.
Playing in the cup, the result on Thursday night will not be binding. With one more vital game scheduled at Spotify Camp Nou in April, when Xavi will have all his stars available, it may be wise to play conservatively at the European Champions’ den.
A win would be the icing on the cake, but even a draw would not be a bad result in the grand scheme of things. However, it is vital that the team avoid a loss, both for its direct implications on the tie as well as the indirect ones on their mental fortitude.