Coming back from the World Cup break, Barcelona started off the new year in an excellent form. With a 100% winning rate across all competitions, a victorious Supercup run, and a perfect record in the cup which saw them advancing into the semi-finals of another domestic tournament, the Catalans had a dream January month, and headed into the tough calendar of February swelling from confidence, at the peak of their powers.
And it started all well. They managed to beat both the Sevillian teams and Villarreal before hosting Manchester United in the Europa League, which was definitely the highlight of this dense, difficult run of games. A lackluster first leg then saw Xavi’s men wasting an important chance to gain the advantage coming into the second leg, which – in the absence of some key players – proved to be fatal at Old Trafford.
First of all, the second elimination from European competitions this season is, of course, an embarrassing result for a club like Barcelona that has to fight for every title under any circumstance, and puts a big shadow on what the team has achieved so far on domestic territory. The contrast is huge, and it is a warning sign that there is still a long way to go, but the context shouldn’t be forgotten in any case.
After being drawn into the ‘group of death’ in the Champions League, we also got possibly the toughest opponent to face just in the playoffs of the Europa League. As I said before, this per se isn’t an excuse for a failure, but indeed Erik ten Hag’s United is a difficult opponent for anyone. The same, though, couldn’t be said about Almería, but in the absence of some essential cogs of the system, we didn’t have the tools to break down their effective plan.
So, who exactly are these missing pieces? Prior to his injury, Ousmane Dembélé has stepped up as the Blaugrana’s main threat creator, whose decisiveness is unparalleled in the Blaugrana squad. His thunderous speed, agile mobility, dribbling prowess, and recently his clutch finishing adds an invaluable weapon into Xavi’s hands. Sadly, he missed more than a month until now, but as a positive news, he is expected to be available for the league Clásico.
Although Dembélé’s unique abilities couldn’t be questioned in any way – indeed, including slight adjustments – Raphinha managed to replace him at a more than satisfactory level. The same couldn’t be said in Pedri’s case, whose absence is probably the most sensible loss for Barcelona. His creativity, ability to read, control, and dictate the play makes him an indispensable asset of our midfield, while his technique, shooting, and work rate add such universality to his skillset that really few possess.
Last but not least, Robert Lewandowski will also miss the Cup Clásico as the Pole picked up a hamstring injury after the Almería game. His absence may not seem as notable judging by his lackluster form in front of the goal lately, but his contribution to the buildups and chance creation will be missed dearly. Although previously labeled as ‘just a goalscorer’ by many, he showed his multi-faceted game during his time at the Catalan capital, and it majorly contributes to the Blaugrana’s success.
With such players unavailable for selection, it is bound to have an effect on the team, which was already visible against Manchester United and in the embarrassing defeat in Almería as well. Many people forget how a key player’s absence really affects the team’s performance, and thus, the expectations should be also adjusted to reality.
Anyways, replacing these crucial cogs – not to mention that even Christensen is doubtful for the Madrid clash – is a huge task for Xavi, and he has to change his usual plan, which might include systemic switches aside from personnel changes. In the last couple of games, we have seen both the WM formation and the typical 4-3-3, and both have its particular strengths and weaknesses that have to be taken into consideration when making the final decision.
On a personal level, Kessié got a prominent role among the starters since Pedri got injured, but depending on the number of midfielders Xavi wants to field, he might just witness the starting whistle from the bench. In the attack, Ferrán Torres and Raphinha have basically a guaranteed spot based on their form, and Lewandowski’s injury can open the opportunity for the likes of Ansu Fati, Ángel Alarcón, and even Estanis Pedrola to have some valuable minutes.
All in all, the bad omen of injuries doesn’t go away from Barcelona and spilled with injuries, Xavi has a difficult task to figure out a winning tactic against one of the very best teams in clinching a clutch result in a cup competition, against Real Madrid. The task is indisputably difficult, but not impossible for the ones who believe, focus, and work hard based on a functioning, victorious plan. Visca Barça!