Xavi described Barcelona's 2-1 win over Clasico rivals Real Madrid as "a very important victory for us" as his team roared 12 points clear at the top of LaLiga.

A first league title since 2018-19 is within Barcelona's grasp now, with a dozen matchdays remaining and no end in sight to their dominance.

A 22nd win from 26 games in this season's championship was hard-earned at Camp Nou, where a freak own goal from Ronald Araujo gave Madrid a ninth-minute lead.

Barcelona's equaliser could hardly have been better timed, coming just before half-time from Sergi Roberto, who was given the nod to start in midfield ahead of Franck Kessie.

That gave Barcelona a huge lift to take into the interval and they struck at the death in the second half too, with substitute Kessie the man to send the home support wild in stoppage time.

Xavi celebrated on the touchline, all too aware of that goal's significance. Barring a staggering implosion over the remaining weeks of the season, Xavi's Barcelona will be champions in his first full season at the helm, dethroning their great rivals from Madrid.

"We dominated, we generated more chances," Xavi said. "I am leaving satisfied. The team emptied itself and worked in defence and attack. It is a very important victory for us. I think we have been good."

He was right about the chances, with Barcelona leading that count 17-11 over the course of the game, and the expected goals final reckoning, measuring the quality of chances and likelihood of scoring, was also firmly in their favour by a margin of 1.64 to 0.58.

Robert Lewandowski missed what was determined to be the best chance of the game, with his volley in the 67th minute flying over Thibaut Courtois' goal. That was given an xG rating of 0.377.

 

Madrid also had a goal chalked off after Marco Asensio beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the 81st minute but was ruled offside after a VAR check.

"I think we had more control," Xavi said. "I think we have been superior in general."

His team had 54 per cent of possession, having had just 35.2 per cent in their 1-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey at the start of March.

Sergi Roberto was named man of the match, and the goal justified his selection, with the experienced one-club man trusted for the big occasion. He featured at right-back last week, but with Araujo returning from suspension was handed a role further upfield, with Barcelona packing their midfield.

Former Milan star Kessie proved he can thrive in such a big occasion, too, with his intervention off the bench, and Xavi could hardly have been more delighted.

"I had doubts until the last moment between Sergi and Franck. In the end it turned out very well because they both scored," Xavi said.

Franck Kessie scored a dramatic late winner as Barcelona took a significant step towards LaLiga glory with a 2-1 Clasico victory over Real Madrid on Sunday.

Blaugrana midfielder Kessie stroked home in the 92nd minute at Camp Nou to send Xavi's side 12 points clear of Madrid, who thought they had won it earlier when Marco Asensio saw an 81st-minute strike ruled out.

A somewhat comical Ronald Araujo own goal had offered Madrid an early lead before Sergi Roberto restored parity in the 45th minute.

Kessie's late intervention, placing past Thibaut Courtois, arrived after Asensio's finish was ruled out for offside as Barca closed on the title with 12 league games left to play.

Courtois produced impressive stops to thwart Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha but Madrid struck first after nine minutes.

Araujo inexplicably headed into his own net at the near post when attempting to defend Vinicius Junior's hopeful left-wing centre.

Courtois kept a Barca response at bay, denying Andreas Christensen's inventive flick and a fizzing Raphinha drive, although Xavi's men finally fought back on the stroke of half-time.

A desperate Eder Militao block against Raphinha saw the ball fall to Sergi Roberto, who fired into the bottom-right corner after a slight deflection wrong-footed Courtois.

Another deflected effort almost undid Madrid again after the interval, though Lewandowski's attempt off Eduardo Camavinga whistled wide to Courtois' left.

Asensio thought he had snatched victory when turning home Dani Carvajal's right-wing cross, only for a VAR review to adjudge the substitute offside.

More late drama was to follow when Kessie coolly finished into the bottom-right corner from Alejandro Balde's low centre as Barca edged closer towards a first top-flight crown since 2019.

Xavi entrusted Sergi Roberto with a key midfield role for Barcelona as the LaLiga front-runners took on Real Madrid in a titanic Clasico.

Barcelona went into Sunday's match at Camp Nou with a nine-point lead over second-placed Madrid, making the fixture hugely significant given just 12 rounds of games remain after the international break.

The hosts were without Pedri due to fitness concerns, and this was an occasion where Barcelona boss Xavi opted on the side of pragmatism, packing his midfield as Sergi Roberto stepped up from right-back, where he featured in last week's win over Athletic Bilbao.

Although Sergi Roberto has come in for criticism at times, Xavi is a former team-mate of his and considered him the right man for the big occasion, with Franck Kessie, another midfield option, named on the bench.

Ferran Torres was a starter against Athletic but dropped to the bench this time as Barcelona fielded a front two of Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha, with massed ranks behind them.

Sergi Roberto was joined in midfield by a fellow veteran campaigner in Sergio Busquets, with Frenkie de Jong in there too, along with teenage livewire Gavi.

Ronald Araujo returned from suspension at right-back, and his battle with Madrid winger Vinicius Junior was widely expected to be a key contest.

Madrid won 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu when these sides met in the league earlier in the season, but Barcelona snatched a 1-0 victory at the same venue in the Copa del Rey in early March.

Carlo Ancelotti's visitors were captained by Karim Benzema, with Eduardo Camavinga preferred to Aurelien Tchouameni in midfield, where Luka Modric and Toni Kroos also featured.

Barcelona came into the game having lost five of their last six league Clasicos, with Madrid winning on their last two LaLiga visits to Camp Nou.

Los Blancos have only ever won three successive league games at Barcelona, between January 1963 and February 1965, but their title hopes for this season arguably rested on them repeating that feat.

Xavi warned his Barcelona players they cannot assume the title is theirs even if they beat Real Madrid in Sunday's Clasico.

Barca welcome Madrid to Camp Nou for the second LaLiga Clasico of the season, and it comes at a potentially pivotal moment.

The Blaugrana are already nine points clear at LaLiga's summit, meaning anything other than a Madrid win will likely have the Spanish media proclaiming Barca as champions.

Even if Barca do lose, there will still likely be a fair amount of optimism at Camp Nou, given no team have ever led by as many as nine points at this stage of the season and failed to win the title.

Xavi recognises the importance of Sunday's contest, but he is not convinced by suggestions it is decisive – for either team.

"If we win, it would be a knock [for Madrid] in the table," he said.

"It wouldn't be definitive, but it would be a strong blow. Whatever happens, I think nothing will be decided [on Sunday].

"We train naturally, knowing we have a great opportunity. If we win, we will take a very important step to win the league.

"We are very motivated. For some players, it would be the first league title. We prepared for the match, no matter how important it is."

 

Sunday's game will be the second instalment in a run of three Clasicos in just over a month, with Barca winning 1-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the Copa del Rey on March 2; the second leg of that semi-final is set for April 5.

Their meeting earlier this month had a peculiar feel to it, with Real Madrid recording 64.7 per cent possession, a high for them in Clasicos since at least the 2013-14 season. At the same time, Barcelona's 35.3 per cent possession was their lowest in a single match in any competition over the same period.

Although Barca did win that game, Xavi wants to see an improvement.

"Personally, I would like us to have a little more possession of the ball than in the Copa," he said.

"We are preparing the game in a certain way. We will try to have more control than in the last Clasico, have more of the ball and be protagonists with it.

"I see Madrid as very strong, they have improved a lot physically since January. I suppose it will be a closely contested game.

"The Clasicos are unpredictable, you never know what they will bring. We have prepared well; we have prepared many aspects. We hope Camp Nou will be a pressure cooker for them."

Of course, being able to call upon the ball-playing abilities of Pedri would help Barca retain possession.

However, the Spain international will be absent again on Sunday due to a persistent hamstring injury, with Xavi unwilling to risk him.

"We knew there was risk [with Pedri]," Xavi continued. "[On Friday] he didn't feel 100 per cent, and if you're not in good shape, the best thing you can do is recover well.

"We talked to him and told him that he didn't have to force himself. It's an important game, but it's not a great final. We don't want to lose Pedri for two more months.

"We have played well without [Robert] Lewandowski, without Pedri, without [Ousmane] Dembele, without Gavi... We have done it.

"People keep talking about the first leg of the Copa semi-final, but that's the only game in which we've not had possession.

"It's clear: a match in which we are dominated will not change our mentality. From the first day that I am here, we have worked in a very concrete way."

Xavi declared Barcelona's slender 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao as a "golden victory" after they survived a late onslaught to restore their nine-point lead ahead of next weekend's Clasico.

Raphinha's first-half goal at San Mames ultimately proved decisive, but that was just the tip of the iceberg as Barca were forced to withstand intense late pressure.

Earlier, Raul Garcia had hit the post for the hosts, and Athletic's late barrage began with Alex Berenguer striking the woodwork.

Athletic thought they salvaged a dramatic draw when Inaki Williams surged clear and smashed home, but the goal was then disallowed after a VAR check, with Iker Muniain deemed to have handled in the build-up.

Nico Williams then somehow failed to properly connect with the ball when seemingly destined to convert a tap-in; the follow-up by Yuri Berchiche was cleared off the line; and Gorka Guruzeta's volley from that rebound was crucially blocked in front of goal by Andreas Christensen.

It was a valuable win with Barca set to face second-placed Real Madrid at Camp Nou on Sunday.

"The same thing has happened to us again," Xavi told reporters. "We have been at a good level for 75 minutes, although we have to attack better.

"It was a difficult game. In San Mames you end up suffering, and that's what happened. It's a golden victory for us and we take three very important points.

"We maintained the nine-point lead, and we go into the Clasico with confidence.

"But we have to get better offensively. We had two or three clear chances in the second half: from Ansu [Fati]; from [Alejandro] Balde, who didn't choose well; from [Robert] Lewandowski with a header.

"We have to improve in that aspect, be calmer and more patient and play more in the attacking half. Defensive solidity must also be valued, but it's true that we have to improve in the attack."

Barca were greeted with a particularly vociferous reception at San Mames in light of the Negreira scandal.

Last month, broadcaster SER Catalunya alleged Barca had paid €1.6million to the company of Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira – the former vice-president of Spain's Technical Committee of Referees (CTA) – between 2016 and 2018.

Newspaper El Pais claimed Negreira's company – DASNIL 95 SL – produced written reports and DVD assessments of referees prior to games.

On Friday, however, Barca – who have denied any wrongdoing – were charged with corruption over alleged payments to Negreira, who is also facing charges along with the club's former presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell.

It also emerged on Friday that prosecutors allege Barca paid €7.3m to companies owned by Negreira between 2001 and 2018.

Athletic fans jeered Barca and chanted for them to be demoted to the Segunda, and the reception left Xavi taken aback.

"I am surprised by the hostile atmosphere of San Mames and it saddens me," he said. "Judging prematurely [before a trial] is not good for society.

"Everyone is free. I respect opinions. But we are being judged prematurely, and it saddens me.

"I have nothing more to add. We haven't talked about it in the locker room.

"Those things are for the club [to deal with]. We focus on playing football, we're professionals."

Xavi hopes to stay at Barcelona for "many years" but insists his main focus is on winning trophies, rather than extending his contract at Camp Nou.

The Blaugrana are on track for a treble this season. Nine points clear at the LaLiga summit, Xavi has already secured Supercopa de Espana glory, while Barca are also 1-0 to the good in their two-legged Copa del Rey semi-final tie with Real Madrid.

The former midfielder has one year remaining on his existing contract, although club president Joan Laporta revealed negotiations over a new deal were ongoing.

Xavi is hopeful those talks are successful and he can enjoy a lengthy reign at Barca, similar to that of Alex Ferguson, who won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues during his 27-year tenure with Manchester United.

But that is not the 43-year-old's primary objective.

Speaking at his press conference ahead of Barcelona's trip to Athletic Bilbao, he told reporters: "It's difficult to be Ferguson in Barcelona. I love to be here. I suffer many days, but I am thankful to the president.

"He's really happy. It's great to have his support. He is a loyal man and hopefully I will stay here many years. But it will depend on all our results. Now is not the moment to talk about my contract.

"Of course, we are talking about this situation. We've been talking about a contract extension, but we need to be calm and focus on winning trophies.

"I still have one more year. We are close to winning trophies, and that's the most important thing – not my contract, we need to win trophies."

Barca will be eager to maintain their momentum ahead of next week's blockbuster showdown with title rivals Real Madrid at Camp Nou, and Xavi has urged his players to retain their concentration levels.

"We are just focused on tomorrow's game to keep the advantage of nine points," he added. "With Real Madrid, that is crucial. Then, we will have the following week to focus on El Clasico.

"We need to keep this good advantage before the visit of Real Madrid, but [Athletic is] going to be a really tough game for sure.

"We are now in the most important part of the season. We need to play well, compete and win those games. These two weeks before the international break are crucial."

Xavi has compared Robert Lewandowski with former Barcelona legends Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi ahead of the striker's return from injury.

LaLiga's top scorer with 15 goals this season, Lewandowski has missed the Blaugrana's last two games after sustaining a hamstring strain.

But the Poland captain is back in the squad for the trip to Athletic Bilbao, where leaders Barca will be aiming to maintain their nine-point lead at the top of the table. 

"Robert has been training with the group since Thursday after some days off, and he's ready," head coach Xavi said during his pre-match press conference. "He's feeling well and always wants to play.

"We are really happy to have him here with us. I will compare him with people like Ronaldinho and Messi. He's changed the mentality of the team. He's our leader and all our players are growing with him.

"We won without him, but we missed him. We attack better with Lewandowski. He presses high up front; he's a crucial player for us."

Barca will be without the injured Pedri and Ousmane Dembele at San Mames, while Ronald Araujo misses out through suspension.

That could see Eric Garcia start in the heart of defence, with Xavi paying tribute to the Spain international.

"He's a great professional," he added. "He doesn't participate as much as he deserves. But he has competition at a big club like Barca.

"He is a player of present and future. I'm counting on him. He always plays well when he's on the field. He's an example in the locker room."

Barcelona president Joan Laporta wants Xavi and Sergio Busquets to pen new contracts and extend their long associations with the club.

Former team-mates, Xavi is now head coach of the Blaugrana while Busquets remains an important part of their midfield with the Catalan side holding a nine-point lead over rivals Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga.

But with Busquets' contract due to expire at the end of this season and Xavi's the year after, there was uncertainty over how much longer the two club legends would stay at Camp Nou.

However, Laporta clarified the situation and revealed the club is set to offer fresh deals to the pair.

"I have already thought about a renewal," Laporta told reporters. "I think we should renew him [Xavi] because he has earned it.

"He knows the house. He knows Barca. He doesn't ask us for crazy things [as per transfers]. He perfectly understands the situation of the club.

"We have talked about Busquets. He is essential in the dressing room, he has a way of playing that suits our system. Xavi wants him to continue.

"We have not made a specific proposal yet, but we will do it soon. We are evaluating it as a club to extend for another year."

After a 4-3 aggregate defeat to Manchester United knocked Barca out of the Europa League, Xavi said the club may need to invest in the transfer market if they are to compete in Europe again.

Asked what he felt Barca needed in future transfer windows, Laporta replied: "A left back, a centre back depending on the market, a striker and we'll see if a midfielder [is possible] depending on what comes out. 

"Up front we are missing a piece, but we must remember that our resources are limited."

Sergi Roberto believes Barcelona's victory over Valencia provides another example of their LaLiga title-winning pedigree after being made to work hard at Camp Nou.

Barca defeated 19th-place Valencia 1-0 at Camp Nou through Raphinha's 15th-minute header to move 10 points clear of Real Madrid, who travel to Real Betis later on Sunday.

The Catalan giants squandered a big chance to effectively kill off Valencia in the 55th minute when Ferran Torres failed to convert a penalty.

A red card issued to Ronald Araujo four minutes later for bringing down Hugo Duro as last man changed the complexion of the contest, but Valencia failed to hit back.

It was far from a vintage display from Barca, but Sergi Roberto is pleased with the manner in which they dug deep to claim a fifth straight league win in this fixture.

"We showed we know how to suffer," he told Movistar. "The red card meant we found ourselves defending more as a team. This is part of a winning team.

"When you go ahead, you need to find a second goal to give yourself some peace of mind. If the penalty had gone in... well. It's a pity, but you have to know how to suffer.

"Leagues are won in matches like this. We have left Madrid 10 points behind, which is something we have to value."

 

Sunday's match marked the first time Barca have had a player sent off and also missed a penalty in a LaLiga game since March 2007 against Sevilla.

Sergi Roberto played 81 minutes of the contest and finished with the best passing accuracy (92.9 per cent) of any Barcelona player, completing 26 of his 28 passes.

The Barca academy product signed a new one-year contract on Friday, making it 14 seasons for the versatile right-back at Camp Nou.

"It is clear that I have been here for many years," he said. "I am happy to continue at this club I've spent my life with. It is where I want to be, where the coach wants me to be. 

"It has been easy and we understood each other quickly. I hope that years of many titles will come."

Barcelona have now won eight games by a 1-0 scoreline in LaLiga this season, which is their most in a full season in the competition's history.

Head coach Xavi watched this latest win from high up in the stands as he served a one-match ban and was put through the wringer by his side.

"I'm never going to protest again because watching the game up there has caused me a lot of anxiety," Xavi joked. "Not being able to communicate with my players was tough.

"The red card was clear as [Araujo] was the last man. It's a shame because we were in control but didn't deal with the danger well. It's a red card.

"You have to know how to close out games. Many times we haven't done it and today we were made to suffer even more because of the sending off.

"A lack of effectiveness is making us suffer. But with many absentees today, and a red card, we showed we still won."

Xavi described Barcelona as "the most difficult club in the world" after his team came in for criticism even after beating Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The Copa del Rey semi-final win by Barcelona on Thursday handed Xavi's side a 1-0 advantage to take into the second leg, with Madrid unable to manage a shot on target.

Now LaLiga leaders Barcelona face Valencia on Sunday, when they will have a chance to, perhaps only briefly, go 10 points clear of second-placed Madrid.

Barcelona had only 35 per cent of possession against Madrid but did enough, with Eder Militao's own goal decisive. It was their lowest share of possession in any game since the 2013-14 season.

"I see that there has been a stir," Xavi said. "Barca is the most difficult club in the world. You win 1-0 in Madrid, and it is not enough. The style is discussed. If it had been the other way around it would be a national holiday.

"Madrid are Champions League and LaLiga champions. When they squeeze you, it's very difficult. Talking about possession when they go man to man is absurd.

"We weren't good with the ball, we have to improve, but without the ball we were extraordinary. We don't want 36 per cent possession, but this is football and there is a rival.

"There is always noise at Barca. We have to manage the noise. We did a lot of things well and there are others to improve. There are two titles at stake, and this is the moment of truth."

 

According to Xavi, the fact Barcelona only have two titles to go for could be helpful, after their elimination from the Europa League by Manchester United.

Madrid are also still hunting a Champions League title defence, with one foot in the quarter-finals after battering Liverpool 5-2 at Anfield in the first leg of their last-16 tie.

"We will have more time, but we would like to be alive in Europe," Xavi said. "We will have more time to rest and recover better, that is a certain advantage."

Head coach Xavi will be without several important players on Sunday, with midfielder Pedri and striker Robert Lewandowski among them, both sidelined by hamstring injuries, while Gavi is suspended.

Barcelona have won 87 per cent of their LaLiga games when Pedri has played (G31 W27 D3 L1) during Xavi's time at the helm, but that dips to just 50 per cent when he has been absent (G18 W9 D4 L5).

Pedri also missed last weekend's 1-0 loss to Almeria, which was just a second league loss of the campaign for Barcelona, who have not lost successive games in LaLiga since October 2021, when Ronald Koeman was boss.

Barcelona play in the afternoon in Spain on Sunday, with Madrid not in action against Real Betis until the evening.

A win for Barcelona would be a fifth in a row against Valencia on league duty, matching their longest streak of victories against Los Che, achieved twice before.

"It's a golden opportunity to get 10 points ahead, waiting for what Madrid do," Xavi said. "We failed against Almeria, and we can't make any more mistakes."

Another man they must cope without at pitch level is Xavi himself, as the coach serves a one-match touchline ban for an accumulation of yellow cards.

"I suppose I'll be in a box, where the game and the spaces can be seen better," said Xavi. "It doesn't change anything. The only thing is that I won't be able to be on the bench."

Xavi was not entirely satisfied with Barcelona's performance despite a 1-0 win away at El Clasico rivals Real Madrid in their Copa del Rey semi-final first leg, and still believes their opponents are favourites for the tie.

An own goal by Eder Militao in the first half at the Santiago Bernabeu was enough for a Barca victory, while Madrid enjoyed plenty of the ball and had 13 shots, but did not hit the target once as they fell to defeat.

Barca's head coach was pleased with the win, but appeared eager to put the pressure back on Los Blancos ahead of the return leg on April 5 as he insisted they were still favourites to reach the final.

"We have a certain advantage," he told reporters. "We will have to compete very well [in the second leg at Camp Nou]. We have defended well. The return home, with our fans, is positive. But I still see Real Madrid as favourites."

Xavi was pleased with his team's defending, but concerned by their inability to keep the ball as the visitors claimed just 35.3 per cent possession in the game, completing just 309 of their 380 passes (81.3 per cent).

"I'm not satisfied... It's not the percentage we're looking for," he said.

"The result is very positive. I'm happy with the work, solid defence, we minimised Real Madrid on their field. The game was difficult.

"The victory is tremendous [but] we didn't know how to keep the ball, it was difficult for us to win duels. We defended well without the ball and fought well without the ball.

"The people are supportive. I am satisfied, but we have to improve in our game with the ball. We cannot give the opponent dominance.

"I am satisfied with the result but not so much for the match."

Xavi says Barcelona enter their Copa del Rey semi-final with Real Madrid in a strong position, but considers Carlo Ancelotti's side the favourites to reach the final.

The fierce rivals meet at the Santiago Bernabeu on Thursday in the first of three Clasicos in a month, with a crucial LaLiga fixture sandwiched between their two-legged cup tie.

Barca have won two of their four meetings with Madrid since Xavi took charge, which includes a 4-0 league win last season and 3-1 Supercopa de Espana final victory in January.

The Catalan giants are also seven points better off at the top of the league, but Xavi believes Madrid's status as reigning Spanish and European champions makes them favourites.

"Madrid will continue to be the favourites because they are champions of LaLiga and the Champions League," he said at Wednesday's pre-match press conference.

"That is regardless of what happened in the Super Cup, where we did well, or any other factors.

"We may have beaten them in the Super Cup, but this is Madrid. I have to be honest. But I also think we can hurt them and I expect a very even tie overall."

Barcelona have enjoyed an impressive first full season under Xavi, but back-to-back losses have halted their momentum.

Despite being eliminated from the Europa League by Manchester United and dropping three points against Almeria, Xavi is happy with the position his side find themselves in.

"The loss to Almeria made me very angry, but we start again with a clean slate," Xavi said. "It's a competition we're doing well in, and we're three games from another title.

"This will provide us with another chance to react. We know we have to be more of a team than ever, with the small details making the difference.

"The message to the fans is that we remain in an ideal, privileged situation to win two more trophies. We are in the Copa semi-final and are leaders in the league.

"We know things can go wrong, but we are here to try to avoid that from happening."

Barcelona are without Robert Lewandowski for the first leg, while Pedri and Ousmane Dembele remain sidelined, but Ansu Fati has returned from injury and is part of the squad.

"He's had a bruised knee but is training with the group and feels good," Xavi said. "I see a happy and motivated player who is important for the team."

In the space of about 24 hours over the weekend, the outlook for Real Madrid and Barcelona changed considerably even if the table didn't.

While their results weren't exactly polar opposites, clearly Madrid came into a new week – the week of a Clasico – with more of a spring in their step.

Los Blancos were held to a draw by local rivals Atletico Madrid. While failing to beat such infamously obdurate opponents – even at home – may not be the most embarrassing of results, it was a bit of a comedown from the Anfield demolition they inflicted on Liverpool and, more crucially, there was a certain assumption about the outcome of Barca's clash with Almeria on Sunday.

As it happened, Barca fell to a shock 1-0 loss. They went from an assumed 10-point lead at LaLiga's summit to being seven points clear of Madrid.

In the context of a seven-point lead, it does seem a little daft to be trying to frame Barca's situation as anything other than positive, but they're undoubtedly going through a testing period – arguably their trickiest such spell of the season.

 

Sunday's surprise defeat came just three days after Europa League elimination by Manchester United. Although their 4-3 aggregate defeat was close on the scoresheet, not even ardent Barca fans would suggest they were deserving of progression – Erik ten Hag's men were, over the two legs, the better team.

Of course, it's not possible to say at this point whether the past couple of weeks simply represent a minor blip for the Blaugrana, or if it's part of something broader.

But Thursday's Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Madrid is the start of a spell that includes three Clasicos in just over a month.

It's a period that will almost certainly define Madrid's season, and potentially Barca's.

In LaLiga this season Barca have been far more consistent – in terms of results – than Madrid. Since their mid-October meeting, a 3-1 win for Carlo Ancelotti's men, the defending champions have dropped points six times in the league; Barca have won 12 of 14 matches.

 

But Barca's form in Europe this season has understandably raised concerns. Two defeats to Bayern Munich, one to Inter, a fortunate draw and loss agains United – it does bring into question their ability to rise to the occasion in the biggest games, and against the teams who are willing to take the fight to them.

Of course, the most recent Clasico was something of an exception. In that mid-January contest, Barca quite comprehensively picked Madrid apart in the final of the Supercopa de Espana, winning 3-1 in Riyadh. They were even 3-0 up for 21 minutes until Karim Benzema's very late consolation.

That appeared to be a statement win, but the make-up of their team on Thursday will be rather different to seven weeks earlier.

Two of the three goalscorers – Pedri and Robert Lewandowski – will be absent. Also out is Ousmane Dembele, usually the provider of the kind of explosive pace and unpredictability that can stretch any team.

 

With key injuries, decreased morale, and back-to-back defeats for the first time since last April, Barca couldn't have picked many worse times to descend into difficulty. But then again, could there be a better time to beat Madrid?

Clearly, Almeria did Madrid a huge favour on Sunday, and given how erratic – at least in comparison to Xavi's side – Los Blancos have been in LaLiga, they need a few more boosts yet.

In fact, the aforementioned inconsistency that's blighted Madrid in the league since the October Clasico has meant they've been continuously hoping for the smaller clubs to be a banana skin for the leaders. Before Almeria, only Espanyol had obliged.

Now, Madrid have the opportunity to take matters into their own hands, potentially putting two trophies within their grasp.

It's all well and good Madrid waiting and hoping for other teams to give them a helping hand and derail Barca while they stumble every few weeks, but they're the side best equipped to aid their own ambitions.

 

Barca haven't lost three in a row across all competitions since April 2016 – inflicting a seven-year low on their bitter rivals would be an emphatic reminder that Madrid are still there, fighting on both fronts in the Copa and LaLiga.

Three editions of Spanish football's biggest game look set to be decisive in one way or another.

For Madrid, these matches will likely dictate whether 2022-23 is a success or not.

Barcelona coach Xavi acknowledged he was "very p***ed off" by his side's loss to Almeria, as the Blaugrana suffered just a second LaLiga defeat of the season.

A superb first-half finish from El Bilal Toure secured the spoils for the hosts at Power Horse Stadium, lifting them out of the relegation zone as they dealt a blow to the league leaders.

Despite the result, Barca remain clear at the summit, seven points ahead of rivals Real Madrid, who they meet in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final tie on Thursday.

But that cushion did little to stem Xavi's ire afterwards, with the Spaniard sparring little excuse for his team's lacklustre performance.

"[I am] very p***ed off," he said. "We played the worst game of our season, especially in the first half. We lacked intensity and rhythm.

"We didn't show passion to win the game. In the second half, we were better, but it was a difficult game. We are still leaders by seven points.

"We made mistakes and we apologise to the fans. It will be difficult to win LaLiga, but we have to change the chip now [for the Copa del Rey]]."

Xavi played down suggestions his side showed a lack of passion in their efforts however, suggesting it came down more to a tired team suffering from a recent heavy schedule.

"We noticed a bit of fatigue," he added. "That's why we have made rotations. That's why we have changed players. We've played a lot of games.

"But a golden opportunity has been lost. We could have had 10 points [as a lead]. It has been a bad day."

Xavi has paid no attention to critical analysis of Barcelona following their Europa League defeat to Manchester United, looking to return focus to LaLiga.

Having drawn 2-2 at Camp Nou in the first leg of their knockout round play-off tie, Barca took the lead at Old Trafford.

But a second-half rally from United saw the Blaugrana beaten 2-1, exiting European competition.

Rather than stew on that result, though, Xavi has sought to move on quickly, with Barca eight points clear of Real Madrid at the top of the league table.

The coach has steered clear of all commentary around the game at Old Trafford.

"I've read almost nothing or nothing. It doesn't change anything," Xavi said ahead of Sunday's game against Almeria.

"I think we played a great game and we have to live with the defeat. You saw a Barca with a very good image.

"We don't think about criticism any more. You have to work to turn the tables on you."

Barca had already been eliminated from the Champions League after finishing behind Bayern Munich and Inter in their group.

"The biggest disappointment of the season was to fall out of the Champions League," Xavi said. "This one hurts, but we have LaLiga and the Copa.

"For us, it is essential to finish the season well. We have to compete in LaLiga and the Copa. We have to keep winning titles.

"We can lose, but we have to keep competing. Yesterday the sun came out again."

"That's not up to us. We cannot control it. We have to win tomorrow, regardless of what happens in the derby."

He added: "We will try not to be affected. You have to think that we are in a good position in LaLiga.

"We haven't lost since the Bernabeu and tomorrow we have a difficult game. We have to change the focus now."

After playing Almeria, Barca have the first leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Madrid on Thursday.

But Xavi said his side "cannot be aware" of the Clasico ahead of this match, and he is similarly uninterested in Madrid's derby this weekend against Atletico Madrid.

"It's not up to us. We cannot control it," he said. "We have to win tomorrow, regardless of what happens in the derby."

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