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."

Xavi felt Barcelona "deserved more" from Thursday's defeat at Manchester United after Antony's 73rd-minute strike dumped his team out of the Europa League at Old Trafford.

Following a thrilling 2-2 draw at Camp Nou last week, Robert Lewandowski converted a penalty after Bruno Fernandes hauled down Alejandro Balde to put Barca ahead at half-time of the second leg.

But Fred equalised shortly after the interval, and Antony struck with less than 20 minutes to play to send United through 4-3 on aggregate and knock Xavi's side out of the competition.

It was Barca's first defeat against the Red Devils since 2008, and the first time in 38 matches in all competitions that they had lost a game after leading at half-time.

Xavi believes his players' efforts at Old Trafford warranted more than they received, telling Movistar+ after the match: "In such evenly matched knockout matches, details are important. I think we deserved something more.

"The goal to make it 1-1 hurt us. We lost a ball and they equalised. They put more intensity and we lost more duels in the second half. 

"It has been an even tie. There have even been moments in which we have been very comfortable.

"This is a big disappointment but we have to focus on the competitions we have left. We had a great rival in front of us."

Despite Barca having now been knocked out of both the Europa League and Champions League this season, Xavi says this season's continental efforts have been an improvement on last campaign, when they were again knocked out of Europe's premier competition before succumbing to Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final eight.

"We have been better than last year," Xavi explained. "The message is a bit like when they eliminated us in the Champions League. This year we have competed against Bayern [Munich], against Inter.

"We have been better. We have competed in this tie.

"You have to be very self-critical and think about what needs to be improved. We may not be satisfied, but there has been an exponential change compared to last year.

"Next year we have to improve. They are big teams and it is hard to compete. Next year we will come back stronger."

Asked whether new signings are needed for Barca to compete at the top level again, Xavi replied: "Soon we'll see if we can sign [players]. What is clear is that we haven't competed for two years."

Xavi believes Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Al Thani would be "a good fit" as Manchester United owner.

Al Thani fronted one of two public bids for United ahead of last week's 'soft' deadline.

Relatively little is known of the Qatari banker, who hopes to purchase 100 per cent of the club after the Glazer family put their stake up for sale.

But Xavi, the Barcelona coach facing United this week, spent two and a half years coaching Al Sadd in Qatar.

The 43-year-old was also previously a player at Al Sadd and is familiar with Al Thani, he said on Wednesday.

"He is a responsible, serious person, a good fit for United," Xavi said. "I worked in Qatar for six years and I know the sheikh."

Jim Ratcliffe's INEOS has launched a rival bid to that led by Al Thani, planning an offer only for the Glazers' stake.

Xavi challenged Barcelona to match "the best [Manchester] United in recent years" on Thursday and show they too are ready to be contenders again.

Barca and United, who drew 2-2 at Camp Nou in last week's first leg, are two of Europe's biggest clubs but are meeting in a Europa League knockout round play-off.

For both, however, there is optimism they may be able to return to former glories in the near future.

United will follow up the match at Old Trafford by playing for their first trophy in six years in the EFL Cup final, while a Premier League title may also yet be within reach.

Barca are eight points clear at the top of LaLiga, meanwhile, but coach Xavi believes their display at United will go a long way to proving their credentials.

"First of all, it's a very difficult match," he said. "At the moment, Manchester United is one of the best teams in Europe, the best United in recent years, and they're showing it.

"It's a good job by [Erik] Ten Hag. They have mentality, rhythm, passion, they showed it at Camp Nou, and we have to match them.

"We have to have personality and a lot of intensity, as well as the mentality of beating a big team in Europe. It's the perfect scene.

"United can say that they are back, but it is the stage to show that Barca can also compete.

"We'll see tomorrow if we've changed [since exiting the Champions League]. We'll see if we're up to the Europa League; we weren't [up to it] in the Champions League.

"We competed very well at home, but we cannot say that we are back, not at the moment. Tomorrow is an opportunity to do it."

Jules Kounde also appeared before the media and was asked if Barca, who lost three Champions League group games but have been beaten only once in LaLiga, feel more pressure playing in Europe.

"Yes," he replied, "but we all like it. It's positive pressure, everyone likes it. I have a lot of confidence in the team."

Xavi is prepared to take on that burden, adding: "I tell them the pressure is for me as a coach.

"I would give anything to play this game. Everyone would want to play in this environment. But I tell them to be calm and control their emotions."

Barcelona need no motivation ahead of their Europa League trip to Manchester United, with Xavi believing the chance to win at Old Trafford is enough.

The pair will meet in the second leg of their knockout round play-off fixture, after playing out a pulsating 2-2 draw at Camp Nou last week.

Xavi, who was a member of the Barcelona squad that defeated United in the Champions League final in both 2009 and 2011, is relishing the contest.

In making the trip to England and Old Trafford specifically, Xavi believes it will be more than enough to inspire his players, regardless of the first-leg result.

"I have very good memories of the games I played in England, simply because it is so special to play there," he told the Times. "It is the cradle of football.

"The stadiums, the fans who do not stop cheering, everything has a very special flavour that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

"So imagine, it is such a pleasure for me to go back to Old Trafford, one of the best stadiums and [one of the] biggest teams in the world.

"We are a brave team that likes to attack and always win. [This game] will not be an exception. It's like a big Champions League game.

"For the fans, it's a massively interesting match. For the players, [it is] one of those matches that everyone wants to play at least once in their life."

Barcelona were forced to come from behind to salvage a draw against United, who are a force revived under Erik ten Hag.

United have turned their home ground into a fortress, with no defeats on their own turf since early September.

Xavi is not cowed by their form however, adding: "Fear? Fear of what? On the contrary, Old Trafford motivates [you].

"It is one of those stadiums where you want to play at least once in your life, where you have to get the best out of yourself."

Ferran Torres acknowledged falling into a "bottomless pit" amid struggles at Barcelona but remains committed to the long-term Blaugrana project under Xavi.

The Spain international struggled in his debut Camp Nou term after signing from Manchester City for an initial €55million (£46.3m) in December 2021.

Torres' profligate showings last season saw him finish with just four goals from 18 LaLiga games, despite accumulating an expected goals tally of 7.03.

That led to some criticism over the forward's return to Spain, having left Valencia for City in 2020, but he has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in recent weeks after impressing in Sunday's win over Cadiz.

While he continues to battle for a place in Xavi's side, Torres – who has scored just two goals in 19 league outings this term – detailed the initial struggles to settle at Barca.

He told reporters: "I felt that I had fallen into a bottomless pit. I had never collapsed so much. I promised Xavi that I would be me again.

"I put myself in the hands of a psychologist. I usually go once or twice a week. My family also helped me, I have a very healthy environment.

"I have learnt not to be so obsessed with goals. I have learned to be happy, to face things. I have had a bad time, but it has been a great opportunity to get to know myself."

Torres hailed the role of Blaugrana veteran and Spain team-mate Sergio Busquets, as well as Barca president Joan Laporta, as he fought to adapt and improve on his underwhelming form.

"The president is very close with everyone. All of my team-mates have helped me," he added. "Busquets told me that I should be calm. That the reward would end up coming."

The 22-year-old plans to stay and fight to prove his worth at LaLiga leaders Barca, with Xavi's impressive managerial skills at the forefront of his reasoning.

"I want to succeed at Barcelona, ​​I see myself here for many years," he continued. "I'm not to blame for the price they wanted to pay for me.

"I wanted to come because this is Barca and you can't say no.

"Xavi called me several times. He carries Barca in his veins and has won everything."

Torres will look to repay Xavi's faith as Barca head to Old Trafford on Thursday for the second leg of their Europa League play-off clash with Manchester United, with the tie finely poised at 2-2.

"We will have to run like there is no tomorrow. It will be a game of patience and knowing how to suffer," he said.

"The Premier League is a very physical league, but we have a lot of talent and that's also important. We're going with everything and above all with young people ready to take on the world."

Brazil international Dani Alves was denied bail by a Spanish court on Tuesday amid an ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault.

Alves was arrested in Barcelona last month following allegations that he assaulted a woman in a nightclub bathroom on December 30.

The 39-year-old, who denies any wrongdoing, was sent to prison and had his contract with Mexican club Pumas UNAM terminated.

Former Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla full-back Alves had hoped to be granted bail by the Provincial Court of Barcelona.

But it was ruled that Alves should not be released due to a being a perceived flight risk who might attempt to leave the country before his trial takes place.

A statement from the court said: "Nothing would stop Mr Alves from leaving Spain by air, sea or even land without documentation and reaching his country of origin, where he could stay knowing that he would not be delivered to Spain despite international arrest warrants or extradition orders.

"There is an elevated risk of absconding, linked on the one hand to the high sentence that could be imposed because of the present case, the serious evidence of criminality against him and large financial resources that would allow him to leave Spain at any time."

Alves' defence team stated: "Daniel Alves remains as innocent as he was before this ruling.

"His desire to leave Spain and elude the process did not, and does not, exist."

 

Xavi saluted Ferran Torres and Sergi Roberto as Barcelona racked up a seventh consecutive LaLiga win to go eight points clear of Real Madrid again.

Head coach Xavi made sweeping changes to his line-up but saw Barcelona grind out a 2-0 win over Cadiz at Camp Nou.

The recalled Sergi Roberto got the opener, after Robert Lewandowski's header was cleared off the line, with Lewandowski then striking the second.

Both goals came in the closing stages of the first half, with Barcelona then doing enough to see out the win over their lowly visitors, albeit riding their luck to keep another clean sheet.

It was their 17th shutout in 22 domestic league games this season, a record number at this stage of a season, with two disallowed goals for Cadiz piling on frustration for the visitors, who Xavi agreed deserved to score.

Torres and Sergi Roberto were among those who came into the team, for a Sunday game falling between midweek Europa League play-off clashes with Manchester United.

Both impressed, Torres on the right of the attack and stalwart Sergi Roberto in midfield.

Xavi said Torres had "taken a step forward to gain confidence" and would be important for the rest of the season if he maintains his level, but his highest compliments were for Sergi Roberto.

"He is a player who can play various positions and he is fantastic," Xavi said of his former team-mate.

The versatile 31-year-old, who has entered the last six months of his contract, has been characterised in some quarters as a player with little to offer this incarnation of Barcelona, but Xavi sees it differently.

"The criticism of him is very unfair," Xavi said. "Of course I want him to renew, for me he offers a guarantee. I see him train and how he gives the performance and he is always criticised. It's one of the most unfair situations I've ever seen in my life."

Xavi said Barcelona were "very good" in the first half, but less so after the break, when goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was kept busy.

"We have given away a lot and I didn't like it. Cadiz deserved a goal and Marc had to make extraordinary saves," Xavi said.

"But the team met its goal and is maintaining its good run of results. I like the dynamic we have, we have kept a clean sheet and we continue to be eight points clear."

Ansu Fati can follow Marcus Rashford's example and turn a promising start into a flourishing career, according to Barcelona head coach Xavi.

Teenage Barcelona forward Fati has had a stop-start beginning to his time in the spotlight, with injuries and a dip in form seeing him struggle to establish himself as a starter.

He has featured in 47 first-team games for Barcelona over last season and the current campaign but has started just 13 times, netting 12 goals and adding three assists.

This season he has six goals in 32 appearances, having managed the same number in 15 games during the 2021-22 campaign, and his shot conversion rate has plummeted from 24 per cent last term to just 9.38 per cent this time around.

Fati turned 20 in November and Barcelona see the Spain international playing a big part in their future, although they might like to see the return of the 2019-20 Fati, who hit eight goals as a teenage sensation.

In every season except this one, Fati has exceeded his expected goals (xG) tally, which assesses the quality of chances and the likelihood of a player scoring. This term his xG total stands at 7.87.

 

Asked whether Fati might become Barcelona's equivalent to Manchester United's Rashford, Xavi said on Saturday: "He has the potential to be. It is clear we have a lot of hope in him.

"We will give him confidence. Performance will mark his development. He will be important. He is being and will be."

Rashford was a teenage star whose game briefly went off the boil after a fast start. He featured in 53 games in the 2016-17 campaign as United won the EFL Cup and Europa League, their last major trophies, and Rashford hit 22 goals in the 2019-20 season followed by 21 in the next campaign, before managing just five in the 2021-22 season.

This season has seen 25-year-old Rashford back to his best, matching his best season haul of 22 goals by netting against Barcelona on Thursday in a 2-2 Europa League draw.

 

LaLiga leaders Barcelona host Cadiz on Sunday, wary they lost 1-0 in this fixture last year.

Barcelona are unbeaten in their last 12 LaLiga games (W11 D1), and victory over Cadiz would see them bring up a seventh consecutive win in the competition, matching their best run under Xavi, twice achieving seven-game runs previously.

Striker Robert Lewandowski scored and had two assists when Barcelona won 4-0 at Cadiz in September, the only time he has been involved in three goals in a single LaLiga game.

Xavi has urged Barcelona to make the most of having one of Europe's deadliest strikers as the spearhead to their attack.

With just one goal from his last five games, this is a lean patch for Lewandowski who has had 19 shots across those fixtures.

Xavi said: "He was extraordinary and now he's lower, but it's not bad. I'm happy with him because of how he works and moves. Maybe we have to use him more. He's a top player who makes a difference.

"He's always a danger. He links well and gives assists. You have to play more with him."

Barcelona will make changes with next week's second leg of their Europa League play-off against Rashford's United in mind, and midfielder Pedri misses out with a hamstring problem.

Barcelona head coach Xavi feels his side were denied a "very clear" penalty late on in their action-packed 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

The sides played out a thriller at Camp Nou on Thursday to leave their Europa League knockout play-off round tie in the balance heading into next week's return leg.

Marcos Alonso opened the scoring for Barca early in the second half, but United were in front nine minutes later through a Marcus Rashford strike and Jules Kounde's own goal.

Raphinha equalised for the hosts in rather fortuitous circumstances in the 76th minute, the winger's cross going right through without a touch, and Barca went all out for a winner.

A scramble in the box culminated in Casemiro hitting his own post, before Ansu Fati was brilliantly denied by David de Gea – the United keeper's sixth save of the game.

Amid the end-to-end drama in the closing stages, Xavi is adamant his side should have been awarded a spot-kick for a shot that struck Fred on the arm.

"For me, the penalty is very clear," he told Movistar+. "I went over to tell the referee that at the end. It was clear. That's my opinion and I know that won't change anything.

"The referee said the ball was too close to [Fred's] body, but for me it's not. It's a clear penalty."

Barcelona finished the game with an expected goals (xG) return of 1.26 compared to 2.13 for their opponents, suggesting the Red Devils did more to win the contest.

Raphinha's goal ultimately salvaged a draw for the LaLiga leaders, with the former Leeds United player having now been involved in five goals in his four games against United. 

He also played in the corner for Alonso's opener, meaning he has scored and assisted in the same game four times this term – the most of any LaLiga player in all competitions.

The Brazil international reacted angrily to being substituted for Ferran Torres soon after scoring, but head coach Xavi says that is entirely understandable. 

"I have to do it for the good of the team," Xavi said. "I perfectly understand the anger shown by players. I was also angry.

"He has come to apologise to me, but he didn't have to. We wanted to find a way to win the game and we almost did at the end."

Barcelona are now unbeaten in their past 16 matches, but one big negative for the Catalan giants was losing influential midfielder Pedri to a first-half injury.

The 20-year-old sustained muscle discomfort in the quadriceps of his right leg, which initial reports suggest will rule him out for up to a month – and thus next week's second leg.

Asked for an update on Pedri's injury, Xavi simply said: "He noticed some discomfort in the quadriceps. We'll have to see."

Gavi will also miss the return fixture at Old Trafford next Thursday after picking up a yellow card in the second half.

Despite the initial air of frustration, Xavi was happy with his side's performance against a United side that have now lost just once in 16 games since the World Cup break.

"It was a very even match. We played well against a great team," Xavi said. "We had to work hard. We had the feeling we could have scored a winning goal.

"Old Trafford will now decide it. We go to Manchester with the aim to advance."

Xavi warned Barcelona they must deal with "one of the most dangerous players in Europe" in Marcus Rashford when they host Manchester United on Thursday.

The two European heavyweights will face off in the Europa League at Camp Nou in the first leg as the pair bid for a place in the last 16.

Runaway LaLiga leaders Barca have been in fine form, winning 11 straight games in all competitions since the start of 2023 ahead of the high-profile clash in UEFA's secondary club competition.

But the Blaugrana will have to deal with the in-form Rashford, who has scored 13 times in 15 games since the World Cup, and Xavi acknowledged the danger the England international will pose.

"In the transition he is very, very dangerous, so we need to take care of all of them but especially Rashford," the Barca coach said on Wednesday at his pre-match press conference.

"He's one of the most dangerous players now in Europe."

While Barca will be tasked with coping against the resurgent Rashford, United will get a taste of what could have had when they face Frenkie de Jong.

Erik ten Hag's side tried and failed to sign the Netherlands international in the transfer window ahead of the 2022-23 season, with the Dutchman subsequently emerging as a key cog in Xavi's midfield.

"Frenkie is an incredible player and for every club in the whole world he will strengthen the squad because he has a unique quality," said Ten Hag, who managed De Jong during his time as Ajax coach.

"If you can get him in the squad your team will be stronger. In Spain, he became even better.

"He's a fantastic player, plays out from the back, he always has time and it was a pleasure to work with him."

Xavi never doubted Frenkie de Jong's commitment to Barcelona amid speculation linking the midfielder with a move to Manchester United last year.

United identified De Jong, who came through at Ajax under Erik ten Hag, as a priority target ahead of their new manager's first season in charge.

A move never materialised, with United instead buying Casemiro from Real Madrid.

Casemiro has gone on to solidify himself as one of the most impressive midfielders in the Premier League, but ahead of Thursday's Europa League encounter between United and Barca, Xavi said De Jong never wanted to leave the Blaugrana.

"I think he was really clear to me: he wanted to stay with us. So there was no doubt," Xavi said at a press conference.

"Now he's our player, I’m really happy and satisfied with his performances, his leadership. He's in a very good moment, like all the team.

"I think Frenkie is enjoying on the pitch and this is the most important thing."

De Jong has played 26 games for Barca this season, starting 20 and scoring twice.

Xavi's version of events tallies with reports from the time that suggested Barca were attempting to push the midfielder towards a transfer, rather than the other way around, in order to ease their financial issues.

Thursday's encounter with United at Camp Nou has been overshadowed by allegations of Barca having paid €1.4million to a company part-owned by former LaLiga referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira between 2016 and 2018.

Barca president Joan Laporta vowed to "defend the honour and interests of Barcelona", saying it was "no coincidence" the allegations had come out with the Blaugrana sitting 11 points clear of Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga.

Xavi urged his Barcelona side to show they can compete against an elite European side when they face Manchester United in a "spectacular" tie on Thursday.

Barca and United will do battle at Camp Nou in the first leg of a blockbuster Europa League play-off, with the return fixture to come at Old Trafford a week later.

Xavi's side are unbeaten in 16 games since they were consigned to a 3-0 Champions League defeat at home to Bayern Munich on October and they have reeled off 11 consecutive victories.

The Red Devils have also been resurgent under Erik ten Hag, losing only one of their past 15 matches and sitting third in the Premier League table.

Barca failed to make it out of their Champions League group, but head coach Xavi is relishing the opportunity to show the strides they have made as they go in search of a place in the Europa League round of 16. 

He said: "Tomorrow is a great match. It's a spectacular tie. Both teams arrived at the best moment of the season. Ten Hag has changed the face of the team. It's been hard for them, but they're doing a great job.

"I expect a game with a lot of intensity and rhythm. It's Europe and we want to show that we can compete against a top-level European rival."

Xavi does not believe the Blaugrana are favourites to advance.

The former Spain international said: "A lot will be decided at Old Trafford. I see two very close matches. The pity is that we won't play the second leg at home.

"I don't think we are favourites. There are very good teams in this competition, it's a very tough competition."

Xavi added: "United is a great club. They are not in the best moment in their history, but there are players who are in a great moment. In recent weeks they have been good and it will be very hard to win the game.

"We want to show that we are at a high level and that we all work hard and are aggressive. Tomorrow is an important test to compete in Europe."

It's a clash befitting a Champions League final, yet Barcelona and Manchester United will tussle twice over the next nine days just for the right to play in the last 16 of the Europa League.

A result of United's dreadful 2021-22 season and Barca's surprising failure to get out of their Champions League group means two giants of the European game find themselves in UEFA's second-tier competition.

While that might suggest a hint of both being fallen giants, these two teams are enjoying largely promising seasons, with Thursday's first leg at Camp Nou undeniably intriguing.

Barca are on course to win LaLiga for the first time since 2019, while United have made significant strides forward following the beginning of a rebuild with new manager Erik ten Hag. A Premier League title challenge could yet come to fruition.

But the Europa League is where their attention turns now, and United's bid to reclaim the title they won in 2017 – the last trophy they lifted, in fact – has them facing arguably the toughest possible challenge straight away.

The absence of Lisandro Martinez for the first leg due to suspension will be a huge source of frustration for Ten Hag, which highlights just how effective the Argentinian has been in his first few months at the club.

United prepare to suffer

Xavi's spell in charge of Barcelona to this point has been a little difficult to draw conclusions from. That's not just what critics think; there are also many, many supporters who remain uncertain.

They routinely win games without playing particularly spectacular football, and that's essentially the crux of both sides of the debate. Some fans may not be enamoured with the brand of football, but Xavi is getting results.

Since the start of the first LaLiga matchday with Xavi at the helm, Barcelona have amassed 112 points in 47 games – Real Madrid, who've played a match less, have taken 104. That's the same Real Madrid who won a league and Champions League double last year.

Now, he has Barca well on track to win the title this season. Even if they perhaps don't have the same entertainment value as Pep Guardiola's vintage Barcelona, Xavi deserves recognition for the transformation he's overseen, part of which is shown in their work rate.

They are tireless.

Former Barca coach Quique Setien, now at Villarreal, highlighted this after his team were beaten 1-0 by them at the weekend.

"There is something that this Barca has changed a lot, which is without the ball," he said. "The data is there: Barca is the team that runs the most without the ball. Seems surprising, doesn't it? Robert Lewandowski is the first defender."

How does this translate into output? Well, their 210 high turnovers is second only to Athletic Bilbao (223) in LaLiga, while Athletic and Atletico Madrid (35 each) are the only two teams to convert such situations into shooting opportunities more often than Barca (32).

Barca's 324 pressed sequences is bettered by just Athletic (330) and Rayo Vallecano (328), though Xavi's side allow their opposition on average only 8.8 passes before a defensive action. This is a low for LaLiga.

Altogether, these metrics highlight just how hard Barca work to get the ball back when they don't have it, and as such it brings into focus the kind of defensive pressure their opponents' centre-backs are put under.

The centre-back playmaker

That is, of course, where Martinez becomes relevant. Obviously his presence would likely be felt even if Barca didn't press with such intensity, as he's arguably been United's most consistent and impressive defender this season purely from a 'putting-your-body-on-the-line-and-battling-for-the-cause' perspective.

Yet, it's his ability on the ball that makes him key for Ten Hag.

Martinez's importance to United in this respect was as evident as ever during the weekend win at Leeds United. Until his 61st-minute introduction, Ten Hag's men had struggled desperately with their hosts' intensity.

Leeds were ferocious in their pressing, and although left-back Luke Shaw generally did fine in Martinez's place at centre-back, United instantly looked like they had more time on the ball once those two were in their rightful positions.

Martinez was dropping his shoulder to evade attackers, pinging long cross-field passes out to the right. Granted, you could make the case Leeds were tiring, and that's potentially a valid argument, but Martinez's performance wasn't surprising. It's just how he's played ever since making the move from Ajax.

Although he only came on with 29 minutes left, Martinez's 35 passes was only bettered by five of his team-mates and no one on the pitch (minimum three passes) had a better completion rate (85.7 per cent).

His ability on the ball makes Martinez effective at helping United resist pressure. He has lost possession 173 times in the Premier League this season, but that is just 12.3 per cent of his total touches. Only 11 centre-backs (minimum 15 appearances) have lost the ball less frequently.

This is despite his passing being positive and forward-thinking in nature, which is evidenced by the fact only Arsenal's William Saliba (22) has initiated more shot-ending sequences than Martinez (16) in the Premier League this term.

United now go into arguably their biggest game of the season – until next week's EFL Cup final – without him, a match where his strengths will have possibly been more useful than any previous fixture.

But if there's one positive, the need to highlight his importance makes a mockery of those who rushed to write Martinez off at the start of the season.

Xavi is adamant there is still more to come from Barcelona after his side battled to a 1-0 win at Villarreal to open up an 11-point lead at the LaLiga summit.

Barcelona continued their perfect record this calendar year with an 11th victory in a row thanks to Pedri's first-half strike at El Madrigal.

The Catalan giants struggled to kill off the contest, with Robert Lewandowski having three attempts saved by Pepe Reina, and that almost came back to haunt them late on.

Samuel Chukwueze found a way past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but the goal was quickly ruled out for offside as Barca kept a fifth clean sheet in six league games.

Despite now having a double-figures points advantage on Madrid, who play their game in hand at Elche on Wednesday, Xavi is not ruling Los Blancos out of the title race.

"There are many points left to play for," he told Movistar+. "The run of form we are on is extraordinary, but we can still improve certain things.

"Villarreal wanted to have possession today, and they squeezed us. We missed a lot of final passes and, by doing so, we have ended up suffering."

 

Barcelona have recorded seven wins by a 1-0 scoreline in 21 LaLiga games this season, equalling their highest total in a full season in the history of the competition.

They have conceded just seven LaLiga goals all campaign, which is six fewer than any other team across Europe's top five leagues.

"The defensive side of things isn't our main weapon, but it is bringing us results," Xavi said. "The defence starts from Robert [Lewandowski], which is very noticeable.

"We leave here having given no big chances to Villarreal and we leave very happy."

Pedri's goal in the 18th minute was his sixth of the season in the league, with four of those coming in 1-0 victories for Barca.

Indeed, no player has won more points for his team in LaLiga with goals this season than Pedri (10 points, level with Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias).

The Spain international was played through on goal following a quick one-two with Lewandowski, but only after Barcelona turned possession over in midfield.

"The game was like that. We either stole the ball off them or they stole it off us," Xavi added. "It's about taking advantage. I think today's victory came from that aspect."

Barca host Cadiz in their next league match, but first is a Europa League knockout play-off round first leg against Manchester United on Thursday.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.