Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti recognises the reasons for Xavi’s impending departure from Barcelona but refused to identify any comparisons in their roles.

Xavi hinted internal factors were among the reasons as he announced – following a 5-3 defeat at the weekend by Villarreal – that he will leave his position as Barcelona boss at the end of the season.

The 44-year-old had a decorated playing career at Barcelona and led them to the 2022-23 LaLiga title in his first full season at the helm but they sit well adrift of leaders Girona this season.

Asked whether he comprehends why Xavi is set to step down, Ancelotti told a press conference: “I understand it. I don’t want to make comparisons. I respect his thoughts and his decisions.

“There is pressure on our job. We have to respect everyone with words, decisions and thoughts.”

Real visit Getafe on Thursday looking for a sixth successive league win that will take them back above surprise leaders Girona.

“It’s a key game,” Ancelotti said. “It will be very difficult and it’s going to be very demanding for us. The team is doing well and hopefully we can put in a good performance.

“Getafe are solid, they play good football and are strong in their duels. It will be a tough game and vital for the league and the season.

“We have to get the first goal in every match. We’ve played games where we’ve taken the lead and in others we’ve had to come from behind. If we come back it’s because we’ve got the quality in the squad.”

Real trailed 2-0 against Almeria and 1-0 at Las Palmas in their two most recent contests but hit back on each occasion to win by the odd goal.

Luka Modric was an unused substitute in both matches, with the 38-year-old’s game time dwindling this season.

“Modric didn’t warm up for the game because a young player such as Arda (Guler) can warm up, not play and nothing happens,” Ancelotti said. “But with Luka I can’t do that.

“He has won five Champions League titles and he’s a legend of the club. When I’m sure he’s going to play during the game, he warms up. The player knows this.”

Ancelotti spoke fondly of Jose Bordalas, describing the “fantastic job” he is doing as Getafe head coach, who sees the resemblance in the styles between himself and the veteran Italian.

Bordalas told a press conference: “Ancelotti and I are good friends, we share many things on a professional level, we have a very similar idea.

“I have great affection for him, great respect and a lot of admiration, for what he represents for all coaches, for the world of football and for everything he is capable of achieving.

“We all know that Real Madrid is in a formidable moment. We have to be close to perfection if we want to achieve a good result.”

A day after Jurgen Klopp's shock announcement of his impending departure from Liverpool, it was revealed another European heavyweight would need a new coach for next season.

Following a humbling 3-5 defeat to LaLiga strugglers Villarreal on Saturday, Xavi confirmed he would be quitting his post at Barcelona at the end of the campaign.

Xavi's decision came just four months after he agreed to extend his contract with the Blaugrana until 2025.

While Xavi has pointed to media criticism and Barca's financial struggles as the reasons for walking away, his team - the reigning LaLiga champions - have slipped off dramatically this season.

In recent weeks, Barca have been hammered by Real Madrid in the final of the Supercopa de Espana, and lost to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, while their hopes of retaining the league title are growing increasingly slim.

But where has it all gone wrong? 

2022-23: Two trophies but European failure

After a second-placed finish in 2021-22, Barca recruited heavily for Xavi's first full season in charge, despite their financial difficulties, as they looked to usher in success in the post-Lionel Messi era.

Robert Lewandowski arrived from Bayern Munich, with Barca spending €45million on a soon-to-be 34-year-old to rejuvenate their attack. Raphinha and Joules Kounde also signed in big-money moves, with Andreas Christensen, Hector Bellerin, Marcos Alonso and Franck Kessie joining on free transfers.

Ultimately, their business paid off. Barca won LaLiga at a canter, finishing 10 points clear of Madrid, while also defeating Los Blancos in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Xavi's success was built on a rock-solid defence: Barca conceded only 20 goals in LaLiga, 13 fewer than any other side, at an average of 0.5 per game. Their expected goals against (xGA) of 33.9 was also the second-lowest in the division, with only Real Sociedad (33.3) managing a lower total. However, that overperformance of 13.9 also suggested that defensive solidity may not have been sustainable.

That being said, Barca only faced 331 shots across 38 league matches – 8.7 per game on average – again, the lowest tally in LaLiga. They faced 56 shots fewer than any other side (Celta Vigo – 387), while they allowed 91 less than Real Madrid (422). The Blaugrana also faced fewer shots on target (109) than any other team in Spain's top tier.

Going the other way, only Madrid (75), scored more goals in LaLiga last season than Barca (70), though Xavi’s team did underperform their xG (77) despite having Lewandowski in fine form. The Poland international netted 23 goals from a non-penalty xG of 23.8, with an impressive shot conversion rate of 17 per cent. 

Yet in Europe, Barca could not get going. They lost three of their six group-stage matches, only managing to win against Viktoria Plzen (home and away), as their inadequacies were shown up by Bayern Munich and Inter. The Blaugrana could not even secure a Europa League place as consolidation, as they lost 4-3 to Manchester United over a two-legged play-off.

2023-24: Misfiring in attack and underperforming at the back

So, where has it gone wrong this season? Well, rather than conceding fewer goals than they should have done, Barca are now conceding more than they ought to have done based on the quality of shots they have faced and opportunities they have given up.

Barca have shipped 29 goals from their 21 LaLiga matches – only seven sides in the competition have conceded more goals so far this term. They are averaging 1.3 goals against per match.

Yet their 23.6 xGA is the third-lowest in LaLiga – essentially, Barca have conceded five goals more than would have been anticipated based on the quality of opportunities their opponents have created.

Barca have only faced 225 shots, which is a total bettered by only Madrid (217) and Valencia (212). However, their average of 10.7 shots conceded per game is already two higher than it was over the entirety of last season.

At the other end, Xavi's side have mustered the highest xG in the top flight (49), yet they have only managed 43 goals. That is still the third-highest total in LaLiga, but it is a clear and sizeable underperformance.

Even the ever-reliable Lewandowski has suffered. Now 35, he has scored six non-penalty goals from a non-penalty xG of 10.3, while his shot conversion rate has dropped to 13.3 per cent.

All in all, it could be far worse, and Barca have also been hit by injuries to the likes of Pedri and Gavi.

Bad fortune and poor finishing are part of the problem, but ultimately, it is a coach's job to fix it. Xavi looks to be running out of ideas, so calling it quits was perhaps inevitable.

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has hit back at Barcelona in a row between the rival clubs over refereeing standards.

Title-chasing Real controversially beat bottom side Almeria 3-2 in LaLiga last weekend after a number of contentious VAR calls went in their favour.

Commenting on what occurred, Barca boss Xavi claimed his side could not expect such luck with refereeing decisions.

“I already said in Getafe that it was going to be very difficult to win this league,” said Xavi, whose side are seven points behind second-placed Real. “There are things that we do not control, everyone has seen it.”

Barca president Joan Laporta went even further in his criticisms, suggesting the whole competition had been “corrupted” by the Almeria controversies.

Ancelotti responded on Friday with a thinly veiled reference to the ongoing investigation into Barcelona and alleged historic payments to Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira, the former vice-president of Spain’s referees’ committee.

“I don’t like to get into this kind of controversy,” told reporters Ancelotti at a press conference carried by the club’s website to preview Saturday’s game at Las Palmas.

“There’s been a lot of talk this week and I think the same as I said before. We don’t have to divert the issue, everyone knows what has happened in Spanish football over the last 20 years.

“That’s the problem of Spanish football, not the league being adulterated, because it isn’t. Spanish football has had a problem and the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office and the Guardia Civil are carrying out investigations and we have to give them time and patience.”

Ancelotti expects his team to rally after being questioned this week in the aftermath of the dramatic Almeria game, in which Real fought back from 2-0 down to win in the last minute.

He said: “We will try to perform at our best in a game that could be difficult because Las Palmas play very good football and defend really well. It’s going to be a demanding game.

“We’re motivated to get back to playing at our best and be more solid at the back. This week has been good for us, we’ve rested. The team is in good shape.”

Ancelotti will have to make one notable change to his line-up, with England midfielder Jude Bellingham suspended after clocking up his fifth LaLiga booking last week.

Ancelotti said: “We’ve been able to make up for the absence of important players many times and we’ll do the same again.”

Barcelona boss Xavi has urged his side to remain “focused” ahead of their Copa del Rey quarter-final clash against Athletic Bilbao on Wednesday.

The sides have history in the competition after Barca beat Athletic 4-0 in the 2021 final, but they were knocked out by Athletic the following year in the last 16.

Barca reached this stage of the competition after overcoming a scare from Unionistas in the last 16, where they came from behind to beat the third-tier team 3-1.

They now face a tough task against Ernesto Valverde’s Athletic side, who beat Alaves 2-0 to secure their spot in the last eight.

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Athletic are in great form this season, sitting just three points behind Barcelona in the LaLiga table, and have won six of their last seven games in all competitions, with the only blip being a 1-0 loss to Valencia on Saturday.

“(The game is) very important and we have to go into the game completely focused,” Xavi told a pre-match press conference.

“Athletic are an aggressive side and they will pressure us a lot.

“They have a great coach and international players who are in excellent form such as Nico Williams, (Oihan) Sancet and (Inigo Ruiz) De Galarreta.

“Also, they have a stadium and fans that make a lot of noise and gets behind them. It will be a tough game and we will have to compete.”

Barcelona have been handed a boost, with Joao Cancelo returning to the squad following his recovery from a knee injury, while Andreas Christensen is also back after missing the Real Betis victory on Sunday with a foot problem.

Xavi also praised the contribution of youth players from La Masia in recent games and Sunday’s clash against Betis saw spots in the starting line-up handed to then-16-year-old duo Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsi.

He added: “We have a lot of confidence in them and they are showing great character. It’s a production line of players who can establish themselves in the first team.”

Barcelona manager Xavi maintains his side are “closer to success than defeat” as they look to avoid an upset in their Copa del Rey last-16 tie at third-tier Unionistas.

A 4-1 defeat by rivals Real Madrid in the final of the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday further increased the pressure on Xavi and his squad.

Bara president Joan Laporta and other members of the board visited the training ground on Wednesday in an attempt to lift spirits in the camp.

Unionistas, the only non-professional team left in the tournament, secured a place in the last 16 with a penalty shootout win over Villarreal, the initial tie having been suspended following a floodlight failure and finished the following day.

The trip to Salamanca is set to further test Barca’s ambitions, but Xavi insists there is plenty left for the team to play for this season, both domestically and in Europe.

“I am here because I have achieved certain targets. When I joined they told me the goal was to finish fourth and we finished second,” Xavi said at a press conference.

“Last season the goal was to win the league – and we did that and also won the Super Cup, surpassing expectations.

“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. We are closer to success than defeat.”

Barcelona will be without defender Ronald Araujo following his dismissal against Real, while teenage forward Lamine Yamal is suspended following a red card in the Youth Copa del Rey last year against Malaga.

After seeing his side taken apart at the back by Real, with Vinicius Junior scoring a first-half hat-trick, Xavi knows his side have to tighten up.

“We have to improve in defence. We can’t let in so many goals or make things easy for the opposition,” he said.

Xavi is expecting a hot reception at the Estadio Municipal Reina Sofia as they look to secure a spot in the quarter-finals.

“They are good in the air, play direct football and have very clear ideas,” he said. “It won’t be an easy place to go – for them it is the biggest game of their lives.”

Unionistas play in the Primera Federacion alongside Barcelona’s reserve team, running out 2-0 winners against Rafael Marquez’s side at the Estadi Johan Cruyff earlier in January.

Manager Dani Ponz knows his men will be underdogs on Thursday night but is relishing the contest against one of Spain’s giants.

“We cannot be intimidated. It is impossible to stop a team like Barcelona, but we cannot fall into disbelief,” Ponz said at a press conference.

“We are going to continue playing the same way – always looking forward.”

Second-half goals from Robert Lewandowski and Lamine Yamal for Barcelona set up an El Clasico against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final.

The Polish striker netted just before the hour and then Yamal grabbed in time added on to ensure Barca deservedly beat Osasuna 2-0 in the semi-final.

They will now meet their fierce rivals, who beat Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, in Sunday’s final in Riyadh, bidding to win a 15th Super Cup.

Barca were on top from the start and could have had the game in the bag in the first 20 minutes, but they came up against a human wall in the shape of Osasuna goalkeeper Sergio Herrera.

Herrera kept out Andreas Christensen’s volley from a corner, got down well to stop a Lewandowski effort and then tipped over Ilkay Gundogan’s free-kick.

The one time he was beaten, Ferran Torres was just inches off target after Barca had won the ball back in a dangerous position.

The first-half chances kept coming as Sergi Roberto missed his kick from a golden position before Lewandowski put another header over.

Barca goalkeeper Inaki Pena had to make a save of his own to keep out Ante Budimir’s close-range effort and then Raphina limped off injured in the lead up to half-time.

Xavi’s men were back on the front foot in the second half and got their reward in the 59th minute.

Christensen regained possession before Gundogan picked out Lewandowski, who found the bottom corner for his 11th goal of the season.

Joao Felix could have made the game safe soon after but was the latest player to be denied by Herrera, who kept out the Portugal international’s curling effort.

Instead, Barcelona’s lead remained vulnerable and Pena had to pull off another good save to deny Budimir in the 77th minute, while Raul García volleyed over the bar.

They finally killed the game in the third minute of time added on as Yamal struck through Herrera after Felix’s mazy run.

Barcelona boss Xavi hopes retaining the Spanish Super Cup can help his side get their season back on track.

LaLiga champions Barca face 2022-23 Copa del Rey runners-up Osasuna in the semi-final of the competition on Thursday evening in Riyadh.

The Catalan giants travelled to Saudi Arabia sitting third in the league, seven points adrift of both leaders Real Madrid and second-placed Girona.

Xavi, who guided Barca to a 3-1 win over fierce rivals Real in the final of last year’s Supercopa de Espana, told a press conference: “We want to find our game again and keep it going.

“We need to play a complete game against a solid side, who have a great coach (Jagoba Arrasate) and who can generate all kinds of different scenarios.

“The click we need to win might come from winning the Super Cup, it certainly helped us last season.

“Hopefully we win this title and it helps us get back on track.”

Barcelona’s two league defeats this term have come against title rivals Real and Girona.

They dropped seven points in four games played between late November and mid December but recovered to register successive victories before the trip to the Middle East.

Barca defender Ronald Araujo echoed his manager’s comments.

“We hope (the Super Cup) marks a turning point,” said the Uruguay international. “It’s a title and is very important for the team and the club.

“We have a great team. We aren’t quite clinical enough in both areas. But we have top quality players to turn this situation around.”

Xavi has selected a 25-man squad for the Super Cup.

Defenders Joao Cancelo and Inigo Martinez and midfielder Pedri travelled, despite not being fully fit.

Real face city rivals Atletico Madrid on Wednesday evening in the other semi-final.

Barcelona boss Xavi maintains the club will not expect too much too soon from teenager Vitor Roque.

The 18-year-old Brazil forward has been training with his new team-mates after arriving in Catalonia to complete a 40million euro (£35m) move from Athletico Paranaense but has yet to be officially registered with LaLiga.

Xavi, though, played down suggestions of any complications over Barcelona’s financial fair play restrictions and suggested Roque could be involved for Thursday’s match at Las Palmas.

Barcelona put a buy-out clause of 500million euros (£432m) in his long-term contract, which runs until June 2031.

Xavi, though, insists Roque will be given the time needed to establish himself in the side.

“The registration process is the only thing missing. He will be in the squad list. We hope to have him available (for Thursday). I imagine it’s a question of hours,” Xavi said.

 

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“We will take things slowly with him – he is only 18 years old and we can’t shoulder too much responsibility on him.

“He is doing well, is eager and has adapted very quickly to the group and to training, but we will be cautious.”

Barcelona resume LaLiga action away in the Canary Islands following the international break sitting fourth, some seven points off leaders Real Madrid and Girona.

Defender Inigo Martinez is closing in on a return from a thigh problem, so could feature in the the Copa del Rey tie at Barbastro on Sunday.

Marcos Alonso, though, is set for a spell out following surgery to help resolve an on-going back problem.

Xavi feels his players can return refreshed for the challenges ahead in 2024.

“The team has come back very well,” Xavi told a press conference. “There’s no need for words, now it’s time to show it on the pitch. We want to find continuity in our play and results.

“I see how they train, what they are capable of, we have done it with most of them. I am convinced (we can win trophies) and I am very excited to start this year.”

Las Palmas manager Garcia Pimient admits it will be somewhat strange to come up against his boyhood club, having been sacked from his role in charge of Barcelona B in June 2021 – but will have the team fully focused for the challenge.

“It is a special match because I was there for many years. I don’t know how I will feel,” Pimient told a press conference.

“A lot of time has passed since that moment. I have not contacted (Barcelona president) (Joan) Laporta again because I want to thank him because thanks to his decision I am here.”

Pimient added: “We prepared for the match knowing that we would be without the ball for a longer period.

“It will be difficult for us, but we have to be brave and be champions – if we retreat, we will not achieve anything.”

Sergi Roberto came to Barcelona’s rescue with a brace to finally see off rock-bottom Almeria 3-2 as the LaLiga champions returned to winning ways.

The hosts looked set to stretch their winless run to four games in all competitions after twice being pegged back by opponents still in search of their first league win of the season.

But the 31-year-old latched on to a through-ball from Robert Lewandowski in the 83rd minute to grab the points which take his side back within four points of second-placed Real Madrid.

Xavi’s men were overwhelming favourites as they aimed to shrug off their recent poor run, and they started on top.

Joao Felix floated a free-kick just over the crossbar then Sergi Roberto saw his first chance well saved by busy Almeria goalkeeper Luis Maximiano.

Joao Cancelo was next up with an effort that he drilled straight at the keeper, before Fermin Lopez headed over from Ilkay Gundogan’s pinpoint cross.

Sergi Roberto blasted over from long-range on the half-hour mark before Barca finally made their seemingly inevitable breakthrough three minutes later when Ronald Araujo’s deflected effort fell to Raphinha who fired it into an empty net.

Lewandowski almost doubled Barcelona’s lead before Almeria snatched their chance to level four minutes before the break, Leo Baptistao lofting the ball over advancing Barca keeper Inaki Pena and surviving a VAR check.

Baptistao had a chance to put his side in front before the break but dragged an effort wide and normal service resumed early in the second period with substitute Ferran Torres and Lewandowski both denied.

Sergi Roberto grabbed his opener on the hour when he met Raphinha’s corner with a header at the near post to put Barcelona back in front.

But the lead lasted barely 10 minutes before the hosts were undone by a calamitous error by Pena, who dropped the ball in a collision with Araujo, allowing the alert Edgar Gonzalez to slide it into an empty net.

The hosts responded well, Araujo making up for his part in the equaliser by heading just wide, before Gundogan contrived to somehow miss his chance with the goal at his mercy.

Sergi Roberto finally grabbed what proved to be the decider in the 83rd minute when he ran on to Lewandowski’s ball through the middle to seal three hard-earned points.

Lewandowski almost added a fourth and the captain was denied a hat-trick deep into added time when his effort rattled back off the woodwork.

Barcelona lost further ground at the top of LaLiga as Valencia fought back to draw 1-1 at the Mestalla.

Joao Felix had put Barca ahead early in the second half, but Hugo Guillamon fired the hosts level with 20 minutes left.

The draw left Barca in third, but having played a match more than both Real Madrid and leaders Girona as the pressure continues to increase on manager Xavi.

 

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Valencia, who had lost three of their last four league matches, created an early chance when Roman Yaremchuk spun to fire goalwards, but Barca keeper Inaki Pena made a smart save down to his left.

At the other end, Robert Lewandowski – without a goal in his last three away LaLiga games – had a shot deflected wide, although the ball had gone out of play in the build-up.

Pena was again called into action in the 16th minute as he got down to clear Cristhian Mosquera’s close-range header.

Valencia keeper Giorgi Mamardashvili saved Lewandowski’s drive from the edge of the penalty area in a lively spell.

The Mestalla crowd were soon calling for a penalty when Pepelu went down under a clumsy challenge from behind by Raphinha, but the referee was not interested.

Mamardashvili had to be alert to parry away an acrobatic effort from Lewandowski before Pedri flashed a rising drive over from the edge of the Valencia box.

Valencia winger Fran Perez hit a low ball through the Barcelona six-yard box which just needed a touch to turn it into the net.

Barcelona, beaten 4-2 at home by Girona last weekend, looked to step up the tempo at the start of the second half, with Ilkay Gundogan sending a first-time shot wide before the deadlock was broken in the 55th minute.

Frenkie De Jong chipped a ball down the right for Raphinha, who cut a pass back through the six-yard box for Felix to tap in at the far post.

Tempers threatened to boil over just after the hour mark when Perez flew into a challenge on Gundogan, and was swiftly shown a yellow card.

Mamardashvili produced a fine low reaction save at his near post after Raphinha had pulled the ball back from the goalline to rifle in an angled drive.

Valencia were back on level terms with 20 minutes left.

Guillamon fired a shot into the top-right corner after Barcelona had failed to clear a high ball into the penalty area from Perez, who was ruled onside following a VAR review.

Mamardashvili made another reflex stop when Barca substitute Ferran Torres latched onto an angled ball in from De Jong.

Barcelona pushed for a winner, but Raphinha was denied at the far post by a brilliant block from Yarek Gasiorowski on the line after Mamardashvili had saved the Brazilian’s initial effort.

Xavi insists he does not feel “alone” despite the pressure building on the Barcelona coach.

The Blaugrana have suffered back-to-back defeats heading into Saturday evening’s encounter with Valencia.

Xavi’s men sit fourth in the table having been beaten 4-2 at home by La Liga leaders Girona last Sunday, leading to speculation around the former playmaker’s long-term future at Camp Nou.

However, Xavi is confident he has the backing of the club’s leadership and rated the fans’ support for his team as a “perfect 10”.

“I never feel alone. I feel like I have support and strength and I feel that we can have a great season,” he said at his pre-match press conference in quotes reported by the club’s X account.

“The fans are behind the team, they are a perfect 10. They know that we will give everything.

“We have a fantastic relationship, with the president (Joan Laporta), with (sporting director) Deco, with (vice-president) Rafa Yuste… I believe more than ever in the project and in what we are doing.

“The club needs stability. We are a winning project. We are the defending La Liga and Super Cup champions.”

Barca had bounced back from home defeat in the ‘Clasico’ against Real Madrid with three wins and a draw from their next four league games before the Girona setback.

A team showing seven changes then also lost 3-2 away to Royal Antwerp on Wednesday night in the Champions League, but with qualification for the last 16 already assured.

Barca go into the match at the Mestalla seven points adrift of Girona, five behind Real and below Atletico Madrid on goal difference.

They remain without long-term injury victim Gavi, who is out with a cruciate ligament tear. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and defender Marcos Alonso, who are both suffering with back injuries, remain out of the squad heading into this weekend.

Valencia have not won any of their last four matches in La Liga, losing three and drawing one, but their striker Fran Perez was in bullish mood ahead of Barca’s visit to the Mestalla.

“We are working hard to hurt Barca and it’s going very well. We’re really looking forward to it,” he told the club’s in-house radio station.

“If we beat Atleti at home 3-0, why can’t we beat Barca at Mestalla? It’s going to be a very competitive game. The game is all about keeping a clean sheet and making the most of the chances we get. We can’t get distracted in any action.

“At Mestalla we are a very difficult team to beat. We have to be calm and compete well and I’m convinced that we’ll have a very good game.

“Our fans are very important and they are our 12th man. We are going to have a great game not only for us, but also for the fans, who deserve it.

“The tickets being practically sold out shows how the fans support us and we must respond with the highest possible level of demand. We must give everything for the club and for our fans.”

Valencia are 11th going into the weekend, with five wins, four draws and seven defeats from their 16 matches so far.

Xavi believes he is on the way to creating a “great Barcelona” side but he wants improvement as they close their Champions League group stage at Royal Antwerp.

Barca are already guaranteed a place in the last 16 and are virtually assured top spot in Group H, barring some unlikely results.

The Spanish club have not been at the top table of European football for a while, having last won the Champions League in 2015, but Xavi, who was a key player in the side that dominated the game a decade ago, can see progress.

“We want to end the group stage having done what we need to do,” he said on Barcelona’s website.

“We have to be much more effective. We create a lot of chances to win games earlier. We have to be better in front of goal, but also improve our defensive robustness.

“We have to show consistency to achieve targets and trophies. We are on the way to creating a great Barca side.

“The team is together and a close-knit group.”

The Belgian side have lost all five of their group games so far, but Xavi still respects the team managed by his former team-mate Mark van Bommel.

 

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“They are a good team and Van Bommel is doing a very good job, and he wants to leave a mark playing football based on teamwork,” Xavi added.

“We will decide which players will feature after training and prior to the game, but it is a good chance to give opportunities to young players and others who haven’t played that much.

“Logically we will make changes.”

Inaki Pena is almost certain to continue in goal after Marc-Andre ter Stegen had back surgery last week.

“The injury to Ter Stegen is not good news,” the goalkeeper said. “It makes me proud to be playing in this shirt.

“I have trained every day thinking that this day would come because you never know what can happen. At a club like Barca you can’t relax for a single day.

“I have been training for a long time with Ter Stegen and it is a pleasure to be able to learn from one of the best players in the world.

“Picking things up from him has made me a better goalkeeper.”

Barcelona will aim to close the gap to the top two in LaLiga when they take on neighbours Girona on Sunday.

Barca are not just four points behind big rivals Real Madrid but also their fellow Catalans, who have been the surprise package of the season so far under head coach Michel.

But Xavi’s men go into the clash boosted by last weekend’s 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid, with Joao Felix scoring the only goal against his parent club.

Xavi told reporters: “It will be a great match. Michel is a great coach and has a philosophy similar to ours. They want the ball and are very dynamic.

“We are looking at the game through several different scenarios because it can play out in different ways. I don’t know which Girona we’ll see, but we’re looking for the win.”

Barca have some injury problems, with Gavi out for the season and now joined on the sidelines by goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen and defender Inigo Martinez.

Ter Stegen has sat out the last three games with a lower back problem and has now undergone surgery to correct the issue while Martinez suffered a hamstring injury in the warm-up ahead of the Atletico game.

Fellow defender Ronald Araujo is set to play in a mask after suffering a fractured jaw in an accidental clash with the boot of Atletico’s Marcos Llorente.

“It’s a part of competing,” said Xavi. “Every year we talk about injuries but, yes, we are having bad luck. It’s because of the schedule and the demand it puts on the players.”

Girona have won all but three of their LaLiga matches so far, with their only defeat coming against Real Madrid, and defender Daley Blind insisted all the pressure is on Barcelona.

The former Manchester United and Ajax player told ESPN: “We don’t want to put pressure on ourselves to aim at something. Of course you talk in the dressing room to be as high as possible, that is what you want.

“I think if we continue like this, this already is a special season, but it can be something special as well at the end of the season.

“I think Girona is still a small club which is building, we are in a good build-up now. We take it game by game and the pressure is not on us.

“Barca are a great team, they have some great individual players. It will be a very difficult game, but these are the games you want to play as a kid against those teams.”

Blind’s sentiments were echoed by boss Michel, who said: “We’re going to enjoy our game. Our league is not Madrid, Barca and Atletico. We just want to keep this successful run going as long as possible.”

Barcelona booked their passage to the Champions League last 16 for the first time in three seasons as Joao Felix’s second-half goal secured a 2-1 comeback win at home to Porto.

The former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea forward netted just before the hour mark after being set up by Joao Cancelo to seal the win and ensure it would not be a third consecutive group stage exit for Xavi’s side, despite having been given an early scare by the Portuguese side.

It was former Real Madrid stalwart Pepe who scored the goal for Porto that looked like it would set Barca up for a nervous final matchday in two weeks’ time, at 40 years old breaking his own record as the oldest ever goalscorer in the competition.

The lead lasted barely two minutes and it was ex-Manchester City player Cancelo who levelled in spectacular fashion.

Pedri swept a pass out wide to Cancelo advancing down the left but there was plenty still for the Portugal international to do as he carried the ball into the box and unleashed a superb right-footed effort that flew into the far corner.

Felix then got forward after the break to finish from Cancelo’s pass and secure a priceless win.

Shakhtar Donetsk’s earlier victory against Royal Antwerp had meant that Barca and Porto went into their match locked together on nine points with the Ukrainian champions, but Felix’s winner means Xavi’s side can relax in their final match against Antwerp whilst the other two teams play off for the right to join them in the last 16.

Barca earlier announced that teenage midfielder Gavi had undergone a “successful” operation on his torn anterior cruciate ligament, which is expected to rule him out for the rest of the season and the European Championship next summer.

Barcelona snatched a late equaliser as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Rayo Vallecano.

Florian Lejeune’s late own goal rescued a point for Xavi’s side but their slip-up opened the door for Real Madrid and surprise leaders Girona to extend their advantage in the title race.

Vallecano made most of the running in the first period and got their reward with a stunning Unai Lopez volley in the 39th minute.

Barcelona went in search of an equaliser in the second period as chances from Pedri, Ferran Torres and Joao Cancelo all went begging but Lejeune’s 82nd-minute own goal gave the Catalan giants a reprieve.

Vallecano made a bright start and had the first chance of the game but Isi Palazon’s effort from outside the area flew over the crossbar.

Palazon proved to be a menace and tried his luck again a couple of minutes later but his drilled effort was parried by Inaki Pena before the goalkeeper grabbed at the second attempt.

Barcelona failed to make an impression in the opening stages but had their first shot on target in the 28th minute when Lamine Yamal rode the challenge of three defenders into the area before smashing straight into the hands of Stole Dimitrievski.

Vallecano were straight back on the front foot and threatened to break the deadlock but Lopez’s goalbound effort was blocked by Andreas Christensen.

The home side’s deserved lead came in the 38th minute in superb fashion as Oscar Trejo’s initial effort was blocked out to Lopez, who smashed in on the volley from distance past the diving Pena.

Vallecano were inches away from doubling their advantage as Jorge De Frutos fizzed a ball into the six-yard box, which needed to be cleared by Alejandro Balde to keep the deficit to just one at the break.

Barcelona started the second half with much more intent than the first and came close to levelling things up but Cancelo’s curling effort from outside the area lifted just over the bar.

Chances began to come freely for the away side as Oriol Romeu’s cross found Ferran Torres free in space but his effort went straight to Dimitrievski.

Two minutes later another glorious opportunity came and went when Robert Lewandowski’s cross found Pedri in the six-yard area but he nodded over with the goal at his mercy.

With 15 minutes to go, the Barcelona pressure was now relentless and they were denied an equaliser by the woodwork when Raphinha’s shot from range crashed off the post.

But Barcelona had their equaliser in the 82nd minute as Lewandowski sent a ball across the box and Lejeune stuck a foot out but could only turn into his own goal.

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