For Barcelona head coach Xavi Hernandez, Sunday’s El Clasico provides the perfect opportunity for his side to respond to a damaging result against Inter Milan in the Champions League.
The inquest has begun into the events of Wednesday night, which leave Barcelona’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages hanging by a thread, but there is very little time to dwell on that disappointment.
Real Madrid host Barcelona at 3.15pm UK time on Sunday looking to rub salt into open wounds. Barca top La Liga on goal difference ahead of Madrid, with both teams on 22 points.
Landing the first psychological blow in the race for superiority in Spain is at stake, and with teams level on points separated on head-to-head, the title race could well come down to the finest of margins.
Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds previews the game alongside Spanish football expert Alvaro Montero…
What has the fallout been to the Inter result?
The papers didn’t hold back. “This is the worst part of this Barcelona,” wrote Marca. “With this defence, Barca will not get anywhere in Europe.”
A case can be made in mitigation; Jules Kounde, Andreas Christensen, Hector Bellerin and Ronald Araujo were either injured or unavailable, but the vulnerability left behind was brutally exposed by Inter Milan during Wednesday’s 3-3 draw which leaves Barcelona needing snookers to avoid being dragged back into the Europa League.
The view from Spain is very dim when it comes to the team’s chances of progression with two matchweeks still remaining. Given Inter’s superior head-to-head record with Barca, victory for the Italians over group whipping boys Viktoria Plzen would confirm their exit.
AS led on Thursday with the headline: “On the brink of a disaster”, claiming failure to reach the knockout stages would cost the club at least £18m. Sport continue the theme, claiming Barcelona are “praying for a miracle”.
Only the heroics of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with virtually the final kick of the game prevented official elimination.
It is far from ideal preparation for this weekend’s Clasico, despite the outlook being far brighter so far this season domestically.
“Xavi has been criticised for the very first time since he arrived in charge – and the players,” Spanish football Alvaro Montero tells Sky Sports. “Xavi picked players who were important four or five years ago – Sergi Roberto, Sergi Busquets and Gerard Pique.
“But the feeling now is that those players are not as important as they were. The game was a final for the fans, who remembered the game with Inter Milan in 2010 (the infamous celebration from Jose Mourinho en route to lifting the trophy in the final at the Santiago Bernabeu) and indeed the defeat in the San Siro only last week.
“Xavi is under no immediate pressure. The feeling in the club is that they want him to stay but of course there is a huge economical issue if they don’t qualify for the next round of the Champions League. They made a huge effort last summer based on the belief they would get through this group but they will not be earning anywhere near the same amount in the Europa League.”
Is this Barcelona tuned to handle the pressure?
Xavi has said his side have no time to stew over the draw with Inter as their attention must be fully focused on the upcoming Clasico.
Barcelona started strongly against Inter but defensive errors saw them trail 3-2 in the closing minutes before Robert Lewandowski’s stoppage-time equaliser secured the draw.
“The problem is that the group is not yet good enough to play under this sort of pressure,” Montero continues. “In the last 10 Champions League games, Barcelona have only beaten regular teams – Dynamo Kiev, Viktoria Plzen and Ferencvaros.
‘The Champions League doesn’t forgive’
What Xavi said after Inter Milan draw…
“Today the game was under control and in the 50th minute there was a very, very clear defensive error. Then there’s the second mistake and in the end the team has paid dearly for them.
“Perhaps in La Liga there may be a mistake and you don’t pay so dearly, but the Champions League doesn’t forgive.
“We hope that it does not affect us psychologically and we encourage the players. We continue believing and prepare for the Clasico starting tomorrow and we need to recover well because we have made a significant physical effort.”
“Under Xavi in the Champions League, they’ve suffered three defeats, two draws and only one win. It’s their worst run of results in their European history – seven defeats in 13 games.”
Robert Lewandowski scored two late goals to earn Barcelona a point – and the Poland international’s form is the beacon of hope as the side head to the Spanish capital.
Lewandowski is La Liga’s leading scorer on nine goals, but he is in need of support from those around him.
“He’s leading the race for the Pichichi and also top for the most number of shots on target, so the problem isn’t Lewandowski,” says Montero. “Raphinha is playing well, but the midfielder isn’t working as well as expected.
“Busquets, Pedri and Gavi are all very good players but they’re not clicking at the moment in the big games when you think of the possession of the ball Barca have had in the past decade. Frenkie de Jong has been injured recently but his performances have been unremarkable.
“The Inter game highlighted problems in defence, but curiously Barcelona have the best defensive record in La Liga having only conceded one goal in eight matches. For context, Real have conceded seven. It’s when the pressure is on that Barcelona don’t look prepared – to win when it matters. This season, they are failing.”
How big a statement win would this weekend be?
Barcelona have already beaten Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan this term, but it would be a bit of a stretch to even count that as their most noteworthy result given the well-documented problems at the Andalusian club, who are submerged in the relegation zone having parted company with Julen Lopetegui.
“You have to remember it wasn’t long ago that Barcelona won 4-0 at the Bernabeu,” Montero adds. “Madrid are in a good moment but in these Clasico games, there are no favourites.
“Real have played very well consistently for a lot longer than Barcelona but psychologically, Real are stronger and they know how to manage these types of games. Especially with them having home advantage, I’d be more inclined to back them to win.
“It all comes down to how Barcelona recover from the result against Inter. It could well either be a really heavy defeat or a narrow victory. I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
The last Clasico before Mbappe’s mega move?
Earlier this week, Sky Sports reported that Paris Saint-Germain are adamant that there is “zero chance” of Kylian Mbappe leaving in January and have denied reports they created fake social media accounts to attack the forward.
But Real Madrid’s interest in the striker is the worst-kept secret in European football. For now, the player remains in Paris – but he will certainly be among those keeping a close eye on proceedings at the Bernabeu this weekend.
“I would say Kylian Mbappe joining Real Madrid in January is impossible. As far as I know, Real don’t want to sign the player right now but something might happen next summer. PSG won’t let that happen,” says Montero.
It means Karim Benzema, at 34, will continue to spearhead Real’s chances of further silverware this season. The France striker is favourite to win the Ballon d’Or, but after injury ruled him out of action for a month earlier this term, he is only getting fully back up to speed.
“The Eden Hazard experiment as a false nine has been used but it’s not been successful. He’s done it once or twice but Eden isn’t playing as well as expected. It’s been very disappointing because Hazard said to the crowd in Plaza de Cibeles when they won the Champions League that next year will be his year.
“But there is still a sense of him lacking commitment and of him not playing the type of football he wants to show. In a good of such magnitude this weekend, I don’t expect him to start and he might not even play.
“The only real question mark for Carlo Ancelotti is what he will do with Rodrygo. The No 9 is going to be Benzema and on the left wing will be Vinicius Junior. It could be that Federico Valverde plays tucked in off the right side.
“If Ancelotti puts Valverde in the centre, it would mean that one of Toni Kroos or Luka Modric won’t play and I don’t see that happening.
“I think we’ll see Aurelien Tchouameni as the anchor in midfield with Modric and Kroos with Valverde playing as part of the front three alongside Vinicius and Benzema. It leaves Rodrygo as an option on the bench as he is someone who can understand his impact role better perhaps than the others.”
How have Real coped without Casemiro?
“Tchouameni is playing in the defensive midfield position Casemiro vacated, and he’s almost always in the line-up. The feeling at Real is that Casemiro made a huge mistake in leaving the club as Tchouameni was seen more with an eye to the future – but not now.
“Maybe he’s not Casemiro, but he’s been playing pretty well. The feeling is that Casemiro has signed for Manchester United for a lot of money and the experience of playing in the Premier League but he’s yet to really show his qualities.
“Without Casemiro, Real are doing better than expected as many fans thought he was extremely important for the team’s balance. But they’ve not suffered huge defeats or big problems without him.”
Is Rudiger not yet nailed on as first choice?
On Tuesday, a last-gasp header by defender Antonio Rudiger rescued a 1-1 draw for Real Madrid against Shakhtar Donetsk and secured their place in the knockout stage of the Champions League.
The German suffered a nasty gash to the head as he bravely stooped to score, but Montero says the German defender was still unlikely to start El Clasico prior to the injury he sustained in Warsaw.
“I’m not sure he’s going to play, not only due to the injury but he’s not been in every single line-up. Ferland Mendy has been used at left-back while Eder Militao and David Alaba have been partnered in defence.
“His eye was completely closed after the draw against Shakhtar so it’s unlikely he’s going to recover in time for the game. Alaba knows (former Bayern Munich team-mate) Lewandowski so that’s going to be an amazing battle.”