Barcelona can qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League when they face Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday night but Xavi Hernandez had a warning for his players before their trip to Germany.

After two seasons in which they failed to progress beyond the group stages of Europe’s top competition, something once unthinkable for the Catalan giants, Barcelona can wrap up qualification with two games to spare when they face Shakhtar in Hamburg.

But while they have cruised through Group H campaign so far, scoring eight goals and conceding only once in three wins, Xavi was left angered by his side’s performance in a sluggish 1-0 win over Real Sociedad at the weekend.

The coach felt his side were still carrying something of a hangover from their 2-1 home defeat to Real Madrid, but said the lack of intensity was unacceptable – and something they could not afford to repeat.

“We cannot play this football,” he said. “We entered the match with zero intensity. If we play like this in the Champions League, we will not compete. The first half is completely unacceptable for us.

“Last week we deserved to win and we lost. This week we didn’t deserve to win but we did. That is football.”

Barca’s injury problems eased at the weekend, with Robert Lewandowski making his first start since September – lasting 57 minutes – and Pedri coming off the bench following a hamstring injury which has troubled him from the second week of the season.

Both players are still a way off full fitness, but their return was a significant boost for Xavi, with captain Sergi Roberto and midfielder Frenkie De Jong now the only players missing.

“Lewandowski is coming back from an injury and it’s hard for him to stay 100 per cent fit,” the coach said. “We have to manage injuries and substitutions well…

“The face of the team is going to change. (Pedri) came back well and this is great news for him and for the entire team.”

Barca had to work hard to secure a 2-1 win when these sides met last month, the first game in charge for new Shakhtar boss Marino Pusic, who was encouraged by how quickly his players had taken on the roles asked of them.

Pusic secured his first league win at the weekend with an encouraging 1-0 victory away to Dynamo Kiev, further reinforcing the progress he is making.

“At this moment we work very hard together to play the game like we want to play, to be dominant and have good ball possession,” he said. “I can only say that the players are responding very well to it and are working very hard.

“I am very satisfied with their efforts and the way they worked.

“It is very good. It is always a parallel process: You work with the players, you work with the team, but at the same time you also think about how to improve the team, make them bigger and stronger.”

Jude Bellingham admitted he had done something great after almost single-handedly winning his first El Clasico for Real Madrid.

The England midfielder scored a stunning equaliser and dramatic stoppage-time clincher as Real came from behind to beat arch-rivals Barcelona 2-1 at the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium on Saturday.

It continued Bellingham’s extraordinary start as a Real Madrid player, with the 20-year-old having now scored 13 goals in as many appearances for Los Blancos.

Bellingham told the club’s website: “I had watched many Clasicos from the sofa with my family and I told them that today it was my turn to live it first-hand and do something great. I’ve done that and I’m very happy.”

Real trailed at half-time to an early Ilkay Gundogan strike and Bellingham conceded he had not been at his best.

Such is his confidence, however, that he only had one thing on his mind when a shooting opportunity opened up 25 yards out with 68 minutes gone.

He duly lashed home a fine equaliser and he was not done there, volleying in from close range in the dying moments.

He said: “I wasn’t at my best. Sometimes it’s not about trying to do something special every time you have the ball, but to combine with those up top.

“I fulfilled that task well but as soon as I got the ball there I knew I was going to score.

“I got the ball on the edge of the box. I’ve been saying for a few weeks that I need to try from outside.

“Maybe the opponents expect me to try to get into the box or combine with a team-mate and I wanted to surprise them by hitting it from outside the box.

“I know I have the technique and it went into the top corner.”

Real coach Carlo Ancelotti, whose side moved back to the top of LaLiga with the win, has been stunned by the impact Bellingham has had.

He said: “We’re all surprised at the level he’s at, especially in terms of how effective he’s been. He could easily score 20 or 25 goals.

“He looks like a veteran. His attitude is very good. He’s the player who has made the biggest difference.”

Group H leaders Barcelona moved a step closer to reaching the Champions League knockout stages after a 2-1 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Barca made it three wins from as many matches through goals from Ferran Torres and Fermin Lopez before they held on in the second half after Heorhiy Sudakov’s 62nd-minute strike.

Xavi’s men produced moments of quality with a rotated side ahead of Saturday’s El Clasico against Real Madrid at Nou Camp in LaLiga.

Barca nearly had a dream start after seven minutes. Oriol Romeu’s high press forced the turnover in Shakhtar’s box which allowed Lopez to jink inside and shoot, but the midfielder’s effort was kept out by Dmytro Riznyk.

Barca’s persistence paid off when they opened the scoring in the 28th minute through Torres.

Lopez picked up another dangerous position inside the box and his effort cannoned off the post into the path of Torres who smashed home.

VAR initially deemed the goal offside but the ruling was overturned after Lopez held his run long enough.

And the potent Lopez doubled Barca’s lead in the 36th minute in spectacular fashion.

The La Masia youth product marauded into the open space from midfield, beat his man with a feint before producing a rocket on his right foot which saw the ball smash off the post into the back of the net.

The goal, which was Lopez’s second of the season, was completely deserved after the 20-year-old dazzled in the first half under the lights at Nou Camp.

The LaLiga champions started where they left off in the second half and came close through Joao Felix, who was denied by Riznyk from a tight angle.

The visitors persisted in their plan of playing out from the back which encouraged blue and red shirts to swarm them in possession as they struggled to deal with the relentless Barca press.

But Shakhtar stunned Xavi’s men when they struck against the run of play to make it 2-1.

Felix lost possession and Shakhtar advanced into the Barca half through Irakli Azarovi who picked out the rapid Sudakov and he ghosted past Romeu and held his nerve with a blasted effort past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen.

Moments after Lopez hit the post in the 68th minute, his headed effort was ruled offside as Barca tried for a third.

Xavi has urged Barcelona to “recover our ideology” before beginning a critical week of their season.

Barcelona have three home games in the space of six days, starting against Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga on Sunday.

Shakhtar Donetsk provide Champions League opposition on Wednesday and Real Madrid make the trip to the Nou Camp next Saturday for the first El Clasico of the season.

As LaLiga returns following the international break, leaders Real held a three-point advantage over Barcelona.

“At the start of the season, we’ve had some great moments of playing well,” said Xavi, whose side have dropped points in two of their last three league games with 2-2 draws against Mallorca and Granada.

“We must recover our ideology and get the three points by playing well.

“We are in a situation with a lot of absentees, but it won’t be an excuse for the game and to be able to play well.”

Alejandro Balde and Lamine Yamal have both been declared fit for the Bilbao clash.

But Frenkie de Jong, Jules Kounde, Pedri, Raphinha, Robert Lewandowski and Sergi Roberto remain unavailable.

Lewandowski, Barca’s top scorer with six this season, is closing in on a return after ankle trouble and Xavi said the Poland forward “has a very good feeling” of returning against Real Madrid.

Xavi said: “He’s a great leader and always goes forward, he wants to be there and he’s hurting less and less every day.

“He has a very good feeling. He always pulls himself forward.

“But there is a lot of variety (in attack) and people with confidence in front of goal. That is great. Last year, we depended a lot on Lewandowski.”

On the potential return of other individuals, Xavi added: “The player’s feelings will tell when he will arrive. We won’t force anyone.

“Feelings are the key and they will mark the return of all of them.”

Bilbao began the weekend in fifth place, four points behind Barcelona after beating Almeria 3-0 before the international break.

The Basques side are managed by Ernesto Valverde, who won two LaLa titles and a Copa Del Rey during his time in charge of Barcelona between May 2017 and January 2020.

Xavi said: “Athletic are very strong physically and technically gifted. Valverde is a great coach and likes to press high.

“I’m expecting a difficult opponent, we have some injuries but that’s no excuse and we need our fans.

“We’re three points behind the leaders. But we have to keep working hard, to keep fighting, and to keep improving, because there is a long way to go in LaLiga.”

Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto is set for a spell on the sidelines with a calf injury.

No time frame has been put on the 31-year-old’s recovery as the LaLiga outfit’s injury problems continue to mount up.

Barca boss Xavi has been without injured players Jules Kounde, Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski since before the international break.

A statement from the club’s official website read: “First-team player Sergi Roberto has a soleus muscle injury in his right leg and will be unable to play until the problem goes away.”

However, Spain internationals Alejandro Balde and Lamine Yamal returned to training on Wednesday following their recent issues.

Balde sustained an adductor injury while on international duty that forced him to miss Spain’s victory in Norway which clinched qualification for Euro 2024, while 16-year-old Yamal – Spain and Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer – has recovered from a hip flexor problem that ruled him out of selection.

Barcelona boss Xavi insists his squad can cope with their growing injury list.

The Catalans visit Granada in LaLiga on Sunday boosted by back-to-back 1-0 wins over Sevilla and Porto.

Ferran Torres scored Barcelona’s Champions League winner in Portugal after replacing the injured Robert Lewandowski.

The Poland striker has joined Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Raphinha on the casualty list.

“We do have a rather small squad, but I would hardly say that we are plagued by injuries,” Xavi said at his pre-match press conference.

“We have players to compete. We hope to recover players in the upcoming games.

“Lewandowski is a big loss, he is our most differential player and a leader.

“But luckily the team has plenty of alternatives like Joao (Felix), Ferran and Fermin (Lopez) who knows what it is to play as a false nine.

“We already have plenty of cover in midfield and there is also new additions from the reserve team.”

Pau Victor and Marc Guiu have been called up for senior duty for the first time as Barcelona trail leaders Real Madrid by four points with a game in hand.

The international break also appears to have come at a good time to allow injured players the opportunity to get fit again.

Barcelona return to LaLiga action after the international break against Athletic Bilbao on October 22.

They then have a Champions League tie with Shakhtar Donetsk before playing Real Madrid at home in El Clasico.

Xavi said: “Pedri is almost ready, and so are Robert and Frenkie. The team is playing well and our confidence has been boosted by two hard-fought wins.”

Barcelona struggled to control possession against Porto, and Xavi added: “I always want 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the ball.

“We need to dominate the control both in attack and defence.

“We face a difficult opponent, the most physical in La Liga, an opponent that will play a direct game with great offensive potential.

“We have to control their direct football. It’ll be hard to beat Paco Lopez’s team.

“There are games in which we have been good and others, not so much.

“We have to take better care of the ball, but the attitude and effort are spectacular.

“In Porto, we ran the most this season, in kilometres. That says it all about attitude.

“But our formula is to stick to the Barca philosophy. We always play attacking football, whether we have three forwards or not. We never change our philosophy.”

Barcelona boss Xavi insists his side are “ready” for their first away game in the Champions League against Porto on Wednesday.

Barca were victorious in their opening game in the competition after they ran riot with a 5-0 win over Antwerp thanks to goals from Robert Lewandowski, Gavi, Jelle Batille’s own goal and a Joao Felix double.

Xavi’s side will be looking to make it two wins from two with victory at the Estadio do Dragao which would put them in an early comfortable position of qualifying from the group stages, something they failed to do in the competition last year.

Xavi knows the size of the task in front of his team but thinks they are prepared for the challenge.

He told Barca TV: “This is the Champions League. We are ready and excited to play tomorrow.

“We have in front a very difficult club in this stadium. It will be tough and really difficult because they play well, a good team with a good coach, very intensive, but we are ready.

“We are really excited and let’s see tomorrow.”

Felix has enjoyed a bright start to life in Barcelona since making the loan switch from Spanish rivals Atletico Madrid, notching three goals in his first six matches.

The forward will come up against a team from his native Portugal but insists “it is just another game”.

He added: “It may be special because it is a Portuguese side and more family and friends will be in the stands, but this is just another game that we aim to win.

“We want to take the Champions League step by step. Our aim is to get through the group and this is probably the toughest game of the group stage.”

Porto opened their campaign with a 3-1 win against Shakhtar Donetsk and have not faced Barcelona in the Champions League for 23 years.

Boss Sergio Conceicao said: “Let’s go into the game thinking that we can and should win. With confidence. The respect we have for our opponents doesn’t have to make us afraid of anything.

“All teams have weaknesses that can be exploited. We have to be solid in defence and then take advantage of any weaknesses (in Barcelona) to win the game.”

Barcelona head coach Xavi remains relaxed over his contract extension, which is expected to be officially announced soon as he stays focused on the team producing the required results.

Xavi is determined the renewal of his deal through until 2025 will not distract from a key run of games which start at home to Real Betis on Saturday and also feature the beginning of the Champions League campaign against Antwerp.

“I spoke about it with Deco, with the president. It’s about achieving success, titles, not long contracts,” Xavi told a press conference.

“I will never be a problem for the club. When we see that my continuity is not the right decision, I will step aside.

“I am very excited and the project remains very relevant. My contract extension will be announced in a few days, without a doubt.

“Performance is important to me. If there are no clear objectives at the end of the season, it’s not worth having a long contract.”

Barcelona will check on midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, who picked up a bruised back during Germany’s game against France, but has been able to train with his club.

Xavi is expecting a stern test from Betis, who won two of their opening four LaLiga games ahead of the international break and sit just three points behind Barca in the table.

“We have a difficult rival, a great team, technically one of the best with Isco, Ayoze (Perez), Borja Iglesias,” Xavi said.

“Having the ball will be key, having it, long possession. We need to win these three games at home and we need the fans.”

Xavi also expects to utilise all his options given the schedule ahead.

“We believe the squad is fine. Numbers are limited but we have faith in the young talent we have here,” he added.

“Lamine (Yamal), Unai (Hernandez), (Pau) Cubarsi – there are good youth players and we will make use of them. There will be rotations out of necessity. We have seven games in 20 days.

“We have the squad to deal with that, but there are players who have been playing internationals and some will be rested.”

Betis manager Manuel Pellegrini knows just what challenge awaits his side when facing a “complete squad” on Saturday evening.

“Barcelona are having a great season in terms of results and are a very performing team that won LaLiga with the (points) difference that they did. Now they are also unbeaten in this first stretch of LaLiga,” Pellegrini said.

“They have very dynamic players with proven experience and young players – like Pedri, Gavi and now Lamine.

“It is a complete squad in every sense, with youth, experience and quality, so we have to play a complete game without mistakes if we want to try to get points in Barcelona.”

Abde Ezzalzouli could feature against his old club having moved to Betis on transfer-deadline day.

Pellegrini added: “Abde has just arrived, but he is on the squad list and everyone who has been called up has a chance to play.

“He is a very important addition for us, he arrived at the last minute, we needed a winger with these characteristics.”

Raphinha and head coach Xavi both saw red as Barcelona got their LaLiga title defence under way with a goalless draw at Getafe in a tempestuous affair that saw both sides finish with 10 players.

Raphinha came close to breaking the deadlock when his shot was saved by David Soria before rebounding off Stefan Mitrovic and on to a post, but the Barcelona winger was given his marching orders soon after.

Having been booked for dissent moments earlier, the Brazilian was given a straight red after appearing to use his forearm in an off-the-ball clash with Gaston Alvarez, prompting uproar from Getafe’s bench.

The incident on the stroke of half-time left Barcelona a man down with more than half the game to go but the sides were evened up just before the hour when Jaime Mata received a second yellow card.

Robert Lewandowski saw a looping header cleared off the line by Alvarez before, with 20 minutes left, Xavi was given his marching orders for arguing with the officials.

Barcelona dominated possession and had 14 shots to their opponents’ five on a steamy night in the Spanish capital but ultimately drew a blank in a clash that produced eight yellows and the three red cards.

They thought they should have had a penalty in the 12th minute of added-on time, with referee Cesar Soto Grado checking the monitors following potential fouls on Gavi and Ronald Araujo.

But the official saw no transgression by the Getafe defence and the hosts held on to secure a point.

Goals from Ayoze Perez and Willian Jose – in the 90th minute – secured a 2-1 victory for Real Betis at Villarreal, who had equalised through Jorge Cuenca, while Ruben Garcia and Moi Gomez were on target as Osasuna won 2-0 at Celta Vigo.

In Ligue 1, Lens squandered a two-goal lead as last season’s runners-up started their campaign with a 3-2 defeat at Brest.

Florian Sotoca and Deiver Machado put Lens two goals ahead inside 22 minutes but Romain Del Castillo’s spot-kick on the stroke of half-time gave the home side a foothold in the game.

Kenny Lala equalised just before the hour mark and after substitute Adrien Thomasson was sent off just a quarter of an hour after coming on, Del Castillo scored his second penalty to give Brest the points.

Wissam Ben Yedder bagged a brace as Monaco won 4-2 at Clermont, while Ibrahim Salah also scored twice as Rennes dished out a 5-1 beating to promoted Metz.

Le Havre, back in the top flight after a 14-year absence, had substitute Samuel Grandsir to thank for a last-gasp strike that rescued a 2-2 draw at Montpellier, while Toulouse came from a goal down to win 2-1 at Nantes and Strasbourg beat Lyon by the same score.

In Germany, Dani Olmo’s hat-trick saw RB Leipzig spoil Harry Kane’s Bayern Munich debut with a 3-0 win in the DFL-Supercup.

Ousmane Dembele has told Barcelona that he wants to leave to join Paris St Germain, according to manager Xavi.

The Ligue 1 side have made the 26-year-old an offer that Barca “cannot match” and he has informed his manager that he wishes to move.

The France international has a £43million release clause in his contract which PSG have reportedly triggered, shortly before the terms of his deal stipulated the figure would rise to £86m.

Talks have taken place between the parties and Dembele has made up his mind that his future lies away from Barca, whom he joined from Borussia Dortmund for £125m in 2017.

“Dembele came and told me he wanted to leave,” said Xavi. “He has an offer from PSG that we cannot match.”

He has played 185 times for the club and has won three LaLiga titles during his six-year stay.

Ilkay Gundogan is a midfield "heavyweight" and his arrival at Barcelona will raise the level of team-mates including Frenkie de Jong, Pedri and Gavi.

That is the view of Barca great Hristo Stoichkov, who is excited by the prospect of the former Manchester City captain slotting into Xavi's title-winning side.

Barca won LaLiga for the first time since Lionel Messi's 2021 departure last season, with a young Blaugrana team finishing 10 points clear of rivals Real Madrid.

Gundogan joined Barca on a free transfer in June after helping City become just the second side to win a Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble, and Stoichkov hopes his experience will benefit younger team-mates. 

"I think it's fantastic because he's a great player," Stoichkov told Stats Perform. "I have always liked Gundogan as a player since he did it in Dortmund, then at City and also with his national team. 

"He is a great professional and I think he will help a lot with his experience because Barcelona have a young team. 

"Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Gavi, [Alejandro] Balde, [Ronald] Araujo and Ansu Fati are young and having a heavyweight in the squad can help them grow."

Gundogan will have to wait for his Camp Nou debut, with Barca due to play their home games at the Estadi Olimpic while their famous home is renovated next season.

President Joan Laporta pledged to create "the best stadium in the world" as the project began in May, and Stoichkov says the work – which will include the construction of a new roof – is overdue.

"For me Camp Nou is a myth and not only from my time, but since it was built in 1957," he said. "The greatest players, coaches and presidents in history have passed through that stadium. 

"It is a symbol and a temple of world football. When I arrived at Barcelona in 1990 and left at such a huge moment and with 120,000 people shouting my name, it will always remain in my memory. 

"But it is obvious that after so many years a remodelling is necessary, and Camp Nou needed something new. 

"Thank God, Laporta in his second stage as president has managed to rebuild Camp Nou and do something new. Barcelona needed it, Catalonia needed it, FC Barcelona needed it. 

"I will always have good memories. I recently sent some friends to collect a piece of the grass, a stone and a seat so that I can put them in my museum because it was very important in my career. 

"I will always remember my first goal for Barcelona at Camp Nou against Valencia, when we won 3-1. When I saw 120,000 people shouting my name, I realised Camp Nou was a temple."

Stoichkov – who won five league titles and the 1991-92 European Cup during his time with Barca – hopes the modernisation helps the club return to the top of the continental game.

"We must recognise it is the modern era," he added. "I played in very old stadiums in England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain and today there are new cycles, new presidents, new players and everyone wanted something new. 

"Obviously when you have a first-level stadium, you like to enjoy it. This is a time when Barcelona are building a new field and a new team so that in a few years, they can win the Champions League again, which is a great wish I have."

Gabri Veiga scored twice as Celta Vigo clinched survival with a surprise 2-1 win over champions Barcelona on a dramatic final day of the season in LaLiga.

Starting the game in 17th, Celta knew a victory would preserve their top-flight status, and Carlos Carvalhal's men took charge as Veiga struck either side of the break. 

The 21-year-old drilled into the bottom-left corner to spark wild scenes at the Balaidos shortly before half-time, then saw a fortuitous 65th-minute cross sail in off the far post.

Celta clung on after Barca substitute Ansu Fati nodded home, clinching a 13th-placed finish as Real Valladolid went down, while Barca ended the campaign 10 points clear of runners-up Real Madrid.

Barca thought they had an 11th-minute lead when Franck Kessie latched onto a rebound to beat Ivan Villar, only for a VAR review to show the midfielder was offside.

Oscar Rodriguez skewed a first-time shot just wide as Celta went close, while Robert Lewandowski saw a curling effort clip the outside of Villar's left post.

The offside flag thwarted Rodriguez as he capitalised on Marc-Andre ter Stegen's error to flick home, but Celta did go ahead on the stroke of half-time when Veiga raced onto Haris Seferovic's pass to finish across goal.

With Barca struggling for momentum, Veiga put Celta 2-0 up when his mishit cross from the right swerved over substitute goalkeeper Inaki Pena, clipping the woodwork before nestling in the back of the net.

Fati ensured a nervous finish by heading in Ousmane Dembele's cross 11 minutes from time, but Celta clung on to ensure another season of top-flight football.

Xavi believes Lamine Yamal will go on to achieve great things after the teenager made Barcelona history with his LaLiga debut against Real Betis on Saturday.

Yamal was introduced as a late substitute at Camp Nou as Barca cruised to a 4-0 victory over Betis, restoring their 11-point lead at the summit.

The La Masia academy product, aged 15 years and 290 days, became the Blaugrana's youngest player in LaLiga history.

Yamal almost teed up a late goal for Ousmane Dembele, only for the winger to falter in front of goal, and Xavi believes the midfielder has the talent to make his mark.

The Barca coach said: "I've told him to try things. At 15 years old, he is a talent and a special player. 

"He has been able to score, he has assisted and when you see him in training you see that he can be very great."

Raphinha scored one goal and assisted another in the thrashing of Betis, with Andreas Christensen and Robert Lewandowski also on target and Guido Rodriguez scoring an own goal.

The Brazil winger echoed Xavi's sentiment on Yamal, saying: "When I was 15 years old, I played for my neighbourhood team.

"It's incredible. It would have been incredible to score a goal."

Raphinha suggested Barca must repeat performances such as the one against Betis, which was in stark contrast to their showing in Wednesday's surprise 2-1 defeat to Rayo Vallecano.

He added: "The Rayo game was very tough. We needed to respond with a victory.

"Xavi warned us, we knew we needed a better attitude and be better on the ball. If we want to win the league, we have to play like this."

Barcelona head coach Xavi was left perplexed by a question about Lionel Messi and Bruce Springsteen on Friday, but said the club will discuss a potential move for Messi once they have won the title.

Springsteen is playing concerts at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona on Friday and Sunday, while many Blaugrana fans would like to see Messi once again playing his own greatest hits in the city next season.

Messi is out of contract at Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the campaign, with rumours abound Barca could look to bring him back to the club where he scored 672 goals in 780 games.

At a press conference ahead of Saturday's LaLiga clash with Real Betis, a journalist asked Xavi if he will see Messi at the concert.

"I don't understand the metaphor," he said, laughing. "We don't know if it's going to happen or not about Leo. It's very soon. We are focused on Betis and winning this league, it would give us a lot of stability. We'll talk about possible signings when we win LaLiga.

"For Bruce, I would like to go but I don't have tickets!"

Reports have suggested the club will meet LaLiga officials to discuss the viability of Messi returning given Barca's ongoing financial concerns, but Xavi said the discussion will be more wide-ranging than just centring around the Argentinian.

"It's not just for the possible arrival of Leo, it's to improve next year's squad," he said. "It's not an important issue, there's a league to win. Mateu [Alemany, the club's sporting director] informs us and in theory, everything is going well."

With Barca leading LaLiga by 11 points with seven games remaining, despite losing 2-1 at Rayo Vallecano last time out, Xavi disputed the idea that the season has been a long one, suggesting it felt longer last year when they finished 13 points behind champions Real Madrid.

"I don't understand why you say it's getting long," he responded to a reporter. "Last season it was an eternity. Now I look at the table and I'm happy. Sometimes I don't understand it. I'm having a good time in this league. Who wouldn't have signed up for this?

"The other day we played the worst game of the season, but tomorrow is a good opportunity and there is hope to win. Last year it was long."

On the defeat at Rayo Vallecano, he added: "Madrid lost the day before [4-2 at Girona] and that happens. You're not always going to be outstanding, it's sport. What you have to do is react tomorrow and return to our game model and values. You don't have to look back."

Barca confirmed on Friday that Andreas Christensen and Ousmane Dembele will be back in the squad after recovering from injuries, much to Xavi's delight.

On Dembele, he said: "The injury was in an area that was more difficult to heal. He's fine and happy. We'll see if we play him from the start or as a substitute, but it's very important news for us.

"We have missed him. He is the best footballer one-on-one, there are few in the world like him. Ask the LaLiga full-backs who they prefer. He is a player with tremendous speed, he is a differential. It is logical that we have missed him."

Xavi said there could be "no excuses" for Barcelona's meek 2-1 defeat to Rayo Vallecano, which saw the Blaugrana miss the chance to go 14 points clear at the top of LaLiga. 

Barca look destined to end their four-year wait for a league title in the coming weeks, and Real Madrid's 4-2 defeat at Girona on Tuesday gave them the opportunity to pull further clear. 

However, goals from Alvaro Garcia and Fran Garcia handed Rayo a deserved victory, with Robert Lewandowski's late volley proving to be a mere consolation.

Barca have only lost three league games all season, but the Blaugrana have now taken just five points from the last 12 available to them in LaLiga, leaving Xavi to rue a missed opportunity.

"We didn't have a good game, we weren't comfortable. They were very intense and aggressive and they didn't let us play," Xavi said.

"We lacked understanding of the game, we abused long passes. There are no excuses, Rayo deserved to win. 

"We tried with courage until the end, but they deserved the victory. We have a margin and there is one less game left.

"We have to think about Saturday. The message to the players is that the league has not been won. It costs a lot to win this league and every game away from home is a war. 

"This defeat weighs us down and annoys us. Today we failed and we are leaving annoyed because it was a very good opportunity."

Having lost on their last league trip to Rayo in October 2021, Barca have now suffered back-to-back defeats in Vallecas for just the second time in their history, also doing so in December 2002.

Defender Ronald Araujo believed the hosts warranted their win, saying: "Rayo deserved the victory. They played well.

"In the first half we weren't up to it, but we still have a good points advantage. Now we have two home games that we have to win."

Barca welcome Real Betis to Camp Nou in their next game on Saturday, holding an 11-point lead over Madrid at the top of LaLiga and requiring a maximum of 11 more points to clinch the title.

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