“We are still a team under construction and there is a lot left in the League”. Xavi appeals to prudence when asked about the eight point difference that Barça takes from Madrid. Although he feels happy about the classification, the Barca coach is more excited by aspects of the game such as the withdrawal exhibited in the 83rd minute of the Villamarín game or by the compact football shown against Sevilla. The immediate challenge is to be a more aggressive team in front of goal, despite also being the most productive in the League with 42 goals, once it has become one of the best defensively in Europe.
The Catalans are the ones that have kept a clean sheet the most times: 15 games out of 20 for 12 in 21 for Newcastle and 12 in 20 for Juventus. They are also the ones that have conceded the fewest goals: seven in 20 games against 12 in 21 for Newcastle and 15 in 21 for Napoli. The average number of goals received per game favors them equally: 0.35 to 0.57 for Newcastle and 0.71 for Napoli. Ter Stegen also leads the chapter in the percentage of stops: 84.09% to Kepa’s 83.33% at Chelsea. And the Barça goalkeeper, in addition, is the one who has received the fewest shots per game —7.6 to 7.62 from City—, also on goal: 2.4 to 2.6 from City.
There is one last detail that is also significant, since Barcelona is the sixth team that recovers the most balls in the attack zone (the last 40 meters): 199 to Athletic’s 214 and Lyon’s 235. Equally superior to the Catalans are City and Bayern. Barça has earned the respect of their opponents after being more reliable in their area, conceding fewer chances and stopping playing with a rear-view mirror, frightened by their latest records in the Champions League. Those wins against Bayern, Liverpool and Roma still sting at the Camp Nou.
The challenge of Europe
Barcelona fans are not forgetting the elimination of the current Champions League, nor of the previous one and even less of the defeat conceded in the last Europa League against Eintracht. The Germans put an end to the good dynamics of Xavi’s team. Now awaits Manchester United. “You have to be careful when drawing conclusions,” they warn from the Barça sports complex. “It’s still true, in any case, that we would have competed better in the Champions League if we hadn’t had defensive injuries when we faced Bayern and Inter.”
The defense has stabilized due to the excellent form of Ter Stegen and the good functioning of the Kounde-Araujo-Christensen triangle. There were no doubts about the Uruguayan’s leadership while the Danish center-back’s know-how and the Frenchman’s availability to play on the right wing as a center-back or full-back has been surprising, a very delicate position at Barcelona. “Perhaps it is worth remembering that we also intended to sign Azpilicueta,” they add from the club, after renewing Marcos Alonso. Neither has Piqué’s withdrawal or Bellerín’s departure been penalized for the moment.
The irruption of Balde, on the other hand, has made it possible to gain variety on a left side in which Jordi Alba remains the unbalancing player, decisive against Sevilla after scoring the first goal and enabling Raphinha to make it 3-0. The substitutes respond to deal with rotations and injuries like Busquets’. The captain suffers a sprained left ankle that for now will prevent him from playing against Villarreal and Cádiz, as well as the first leg against Manchester United. The alternative at the moment is Kessié without ruling out the options of Sergi Roberto or, ultimately, Pablo Torre.
The game has more continuity since the role of each footballer has been defined and the matches are better controlled, a leap in quality announced against Real Sociedad in the Cup and verified against Betis and Sevilla after a very rough afternoon in Girona . Barcelona has only given up one draw, against Espanyol at the Camp Nou, who lost their only league game at the Bernabéu in October. Espanyol, Madrid, Osasuna, Real Sociedad and Betis are the rivals who have beaten Ter Stegen in the League —the last defeat was on October 26 against Bayern.
“Although it is important to get off the ball well, care was taken when choosing the defenders,” they argue from the Camp Nou offices. “We also had to bet on physical full-backs, who anticipated and closed well, and, on the other hand, capable of defending forwards”, they add, later recalling that some attacks start with a pass from Christensen or Kounde. This was confirmed in the 1-0 and 2-0 against Sevilla. The game with the ball improves after insisting on recovery as a symptom of the “hunger” of the team, a word repeated by Xavi, who holds individual talks with his players to refine the game mechanics and increase Barcelona’s competitiveness.
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