Xavi grateful for Koeman support as 'angry' Barcelona seek improvements

By Sports Desk April 30, 2022

Barcelona coach Xavi expressed his gratitude for the support from former boss Ronald Koeman as he implored the Blaugrana to respond against Real Mallorca.

Xavi's side sit third in LaLiga, a point behind second-placed Sevilla – who have played a game more – and 15 behind runaway leaders Real Madrid.

However, Barca have fallen to three straight home defeats in all competitions for just the second time in their history, last doing so under Louis van Gaal between the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.

That torrid run culminated in their elimination from the Europa League and placed slight doubt over Champions League qualification, though they are six points ahead of fifth-placed Real Betis.

Koeman suggested on Thursday that Xavi deserves more support than he received when at Barca, with the Spaniard lifting the Blaugrana from ninth to third following the Dutchman's dismissal last October.

While Xavi welcomed the support of a fellow coach and revealed his admiration for Koeman, the 42-year-old urged Barca to improve against Mallorca on Sunday.

"I'm not going to change the feelings that Ronald has. I wasn't there and I'm not going to give my opinion," he told reporters at a pre-match news conference on Saturday.

"I have tremendous respect and admiration for him. Everyone has to support Barca. I have the utmost respect for Ronald for the work and effort he made. Thank him, nothing more.

"We are here and I do feel the support of the club and of Barcelona in general. It seemed that we had hit the key, but suddenly there were three defeats in a row.

"Now we have to see to the coach, the players, show our faces."

Barca have never lost four home games in a row in their history, and Xavi reiterated his calls for his side to respond against Mallorca, who have lost their last eight league meetings with the Blaugrana.

"It is time to take a step forward," he added. "You have to make more of a team than ever and bring out your personality. It's not because of a bad attitude.

"It's because of situations that have weighed us down. We have to improve. It's time to push it forward and bring out the personality. I have a winning team and that's the reality.

"You have to set challenges. Those who have the most desire will enter the Champions League. This is a club made to win titles. The second is the minimum required.

"On Monday we were angry, on Tuesday less and on Wednesday we were already working.

"It is a reality and you have to prepare yourself for that. You have to have faith to achieve the minimum objective."

Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid will be crowned champions if they avoid defeat against Espanyol the day before Barca are in action.

"If they are champions, we will congratulate them," he said of Madrid.

"They have been better because this is a long competition and usually the one who deserves it wins. We will congratulate them and next year we will compete better."

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    Italy head coach Luciano Spalletti insists his side must improve on their display against Spain when they face Croatia in Leipzig next Monday. 

    The Azzurri's 10-game unbeaten run at the Euros came to an end at the hands of Luis de la Fuente's side after Riccardo Caliafiori's own goal in the second half. 

    During the defeat, Italy's lack of attacking threat was clear, registering their fewest shots in a game on record at the Euros (four).

    Italy are second in Group B, with Croatia bottom, though it is all to play for, with both sides capable of progressing or even missing out on a place in the last 16.

    "Maybe I needed to give them more rest, I probably need to give them more days off, we gave them a day and a half off in terms of rest and we saw that was the right decision in terms of our data," Spalletti said.

    "But there was too much of a gulf, we were constantly stretched, we probably didn't recover very well in terms of just how demanding and important the tournament was itself, because there was too much of a gulf in terms of sharpness and freshness."

    Italy have never lost consecutive games at the European Championships, but are faced with a side they have failed to beat in their previous eight encounters. 

    Spalletti believes his side can take inspiration from Spain's dominant display over them, saying: "Everyone would love to copy Spain in terms of the way they play. They've been playing the best football for the longest time now. 

    "I need to try and succeed in making my players aware of how important this sort of match is, because if you sit very deep against teams like this, ultimately it becomes very difficult."

    Meanwhile, Croatia are on the verge of a surprise group-stage exit after picking up just one point so far.

    Head coach Zlatko Dalic has come in for criticism back home, despite having led the team to the 2018 World Cup final, 2022 World Cup semi-finals, and last year's Nations League final in an unprecedented spell of success.

    "We will do everything to prepare for Italy. I have learned some things in these seven years where there have been far more successes than failures," Dalic said. 

    "I'm also used to criticism. I always say it's my responsibility. I am aware that when medals are won, my role ‘means nothing’ and that I am there by accident, but that’s how it is in Croatia."

    Dalic stuck with his midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, and Marcelo Brozovic against Albania, but replaced Brozovic at half-time with 21-year-old Luka Sucic, who impressed.

    "Those who deserve to play, play," Dalic said. "I choose with the staff what I think is best.

    "Of course, some others have merit, but those who I think are the best play. Here are those who deserve to be here. This probably applies to the older players and I will be with them as long as I live, but those who deserve to play, play."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Croatia - Luka Modric

    In what could be his final appearance for his nation at a major tournament, Modric continues to prove that age is just a number. The Real Madrid midfielder started his 15th game in the European Championships, with only Andres Iniesta (16) starting more often among midfielders in the history of the competition.

    His 20 line-breaking passes were the most of any player against Albania, and he became the oldest player on record (since 1980) to complete 100+ passes in a match at the European Championships (108 v Albania today, 38y 284d). 

     

    Italy - Gianluigi Donnarumma

    With the Italians' forward line restricted to just four shots against Spain in their last encounter, Donnarumma will be key to ensure they prevent conceding against Croatia. 

    The Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper is set to make his 10th Euros appearance aged 25 years and 120 days on the day of the game, becoming the youngest goalkeeper to hit this milestone in European Championship history.

    MATCH PREDICTION: DRAW

    Even though Opta's model makes Italy marginal favourties, Croatia boast an impressive record against the Azzurri and will be looking to continue that record as they look to confirm their progression to the knockout stages. 

    Since gaining independence in the early 1990s, Croatia are unbeaten in their eight meetings against Italy (W3 D5). However, their last three games have all ended 1-1. 

    Dalic's side have not gone through a group stage without winning at a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup (D2 L1). They have won their final group game at three of their last four major tournaments (D1) since losing 3-1 to Mexico at the 2014 World Cup.

    Croatia also boast an excellent record against the current reigning champions of the tournament. This will be their fifth against the current holders of the trophy, each coming in the group stages. 

    Since the group phase was introduced in 1980, Italy have lost their final group game in only one of their nine appearances at the UEFA European Championship (W6 D2), going down 1-0 against the Republic of Ireland in 2016.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Croatia - 32.6%

    Draw - 27.7%

    Italy - 39.7%

  • Albania v Spain: La Roja have not achieved anything at Euro 2024, says De la Fuente Albania v Spain: La Roja have not achieved anything at Euro 2024, says De la Fuente

    Spain head coach Luis de la Fuente insists his side are yet to achieve anything at Euro 2024, despite qualifying for the knockout stages with a game to spare. 

    De la Fuente watched on as his side earned their second victory of the tournament against Italy on Thursday, with Riccardo Calafiori's own goal ending the Azzurri's 10-game unbeaten run in the competition. 

    The 1-0 triumph in Gelsenkirchen saw La Roja earn a third consecutive victory over Italy for the first time. Spain have also won their first two games at a Euros tournament to nil for just the second time, also doing so in 2016. 

    However, De la Fuente knows his side have more to do to lift their third European Championship crown, insisting his players will show humility ahead of facing Albania in Dusseldorf next Monday. 

    "We're still a long way off winning the European Championship. We haven't yet achieved anything. Okay, we've won some important matches. We have wonderful prospects," De la Fuente said.

    "But football can also be very cruel. So we need to be cautious. We need to be humble. We need to show respect."

    For Albania, a last-minute equaliser by Klaus Gjasula against Croatia, making him just the second player to score a goal and an own goal in a single match at the Euros, kept their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages alive. 

    The goal marked the first time Albania have scored more than once in a match at a major tournament, and their attacking talents will need to be firing as they aim to penetrate Spain's resolute defence, who in their last game, restricted Italy to just four shots – their fewest at the Euros. 

    Head coach Sylvinho is hopeful of masterminding Albania's first victory against La Roja, promising supporters his side will give everything to ensure their memorable journey in Germany continues.

    "What I promise to the Albanian people is that we will fight for every point," Sylvinho said.

    "Against Spain it will be difficult but we must enjoy these moments."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Albania – Kristjan Asllani

    In Albania's first two games against Italy and Croatia, Asllani led the way for his nation in shots attempted (four), shots on target (two), successful passes (91), and passes in the final third (20). 

    The Inter midfielder has also created the joint-most chances (three) but is yet to register a goal involvement for Albania. 

    Spain – Nico Williams

    Williams created the most chances (four) and completed the joint-most dribbles (four) of any Spain player against Italy on matchday two. 

    The last Spaniard to create as many chances and complete as many dribbles in the same game at the Euros was Andres Iniesta against Croatia in 2012 (also four for each).

    MATCH PREDICTION: SPAIN WIN

    La Roja boast an impressive record over their opponents coming into the encounter in Dusseldorf, having won all eight of their previous meetings (31 goals for, three against).

    It’s Spain’s best 100% record against any opponent, alongside Liechtenstein and Malta, whom they’ve also faced and beaten on eight occasions.

    Spain will also be looking to maintain their perfect start to the competition heading into the last 16, and a win will see them win their opening three games at the Euros for the second time after 2008, an edition where they would go on to claim their maiden title. 

    However, Albania will be hoping to start well and make it count this time around. Sylvinho's side have netted the opening goal in each of their two group games but are yet to win (one draw, one loss). No nation has ever scored first in three European Championship games in a row and failed to win any of them.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Albania – 16.7%

    Draw – 21.6%

    Spain – 61.7%

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    Real Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni says his team are aiming to be champions and are looking to continue their impressive form against LA Galaxy on Saturday.

    RSL sit top of the Western Conference on 37 points, having lost just two matches so far this season while putting together an astounding 15-game unbeaten run in the league.

    Mastroeni knows exactly where his side are in the table, and he has embraced the challenge that comes with being the leader.

    "It's about connecting to the big picture - we want to be champs," said Mastroeni. "There's all these sayings in sport for a reason, the one I go by is offence will win you games, but defence will win you championships.

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    The Galaxy are one of those chasing Salt Lake down, sitting just three points below them in third, having lost just one of their last nine matches.

    Having won their last two games, head coach Greg Vanney was particularly pleased with how his side defended in those two victories.

    "When we're following through on our responsibilities and making the games as predictable as we possibly can, then it helps the group to deal with situations a lot easier and cleaner," Vanney said.

    "We've done a nice job of that in the last two games, and it helps us to defend better. It gives the group a lot of confidence in understanding that if we stick to what we want to do, we can be a lot more efficient, especially in defence."

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Real Salt Lake – Cristian Arango

    Arango has scored six goals in six career MLS matches against the Galaxy (incl. playoffs), tied for his most against any opponent in MLS play (Austin, Dallas).

    No player has scored more goals against the Galaxy since Arango joined MLS in August 2021.

    LA Galaxy – Dejan Joveljic

    Joveljic had both a goal and an assist in the Galaxy's win over New York City FC on Wednesday, his second straight game with one of each.

    The only other Galaxy player to have three straight regular-season games with both a goal and an assist is Zlatan Ibrahimovic (September 2019).

    MATCH PREDICTION: REAL SALT LAKE WIN

    Salt Lake have lost only one of their last six regular-season matches against the Galaxy (W2 D3), though that defeat came in their last home league match against them in May 2023.

    The Galaxy have won consecutive regular-season road games against RSL just once, doing so in 2012-13.

    RSL are unbeaten in 15 straight regular-season matches (W9 D6), equaling the longest single-season streak since the Portland Timbers went 15 straight without defeat in 2018. There have only been three longer single-season streaks in MLS history, most recently a 16-match run by New York Red Bulls in 2016.

    Meanwhile, the Galaxy have won four of their last five games (L1) with the last three of those wins coming by at least two goals. It is the first time the team have had three victories by multiple goals in a four-game span since doing so in September-October 2018.

    OPTA WIN PROBABILITY

    Real Salt Lake – 53.7%

    Draw – 23.8%

    LA Galaxy – 22.6%

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