Barcelona closing the gap on Real Madrid
Barcelona may have been beaten by Real Madrid, and suffered a fifth successive Clasico defeat in the process, but Wednesday’s game between the two rivals showed the gap between the two is undoubtedly closing.
Los Blancos began the game a massive 17 points ahead of the Catalans in the league but it didn’t look that way on the pitch. Barca ended the game with 20 shots (Real Madrid had 14) and also topped the possession stats on 53%.
20 - @FCBarcelona attempted 20 shots in the #SupercopaDeEspana semi-final against Real Madrid (six shots on target), their most in #ElClasico in all competitions since April 2006 in LaLiga (35), under Frank Rijkaard . Optimism. pic.twitter.com/4QeK96z3jc— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 12, 2022
This was, don’t forget, a Barcelona team full of players just back from injury, (hand surgery in Araujo’s case) and Covid-19 and that have only worked under new coach Xavi for a couple of months. It’ll take time but the early signs continue to be positive.
Nothing new here but Barca finished with Pedri, 19, Fati, 19, Nico, 20, Araujo, 22, Jutgla, 22. After Gavi, 17, Abde, 20, and Torres, 21, had gone off. Eight players 22 or younger. And not any old game, against Real Madrid.— Tom Allnutt (@TomAllnuttAFP) January 12, 2022
Xavi called the gap to Real Madrid “abysmal” before Christmas but he won’t be feeling that way now, particularly after seeing a youthful Barca side more than match the runaway La Liga leaders.
There’s been plenty of bullish talk from president Joan Laporta recently that Barca are “back” after a really tricky time. They might not be quite back yet, but they’re certainly on the way and this game, despite the result, should offer the youngsters some much-needed belief.
Ferran Torres makes Barca debut
Wednesday’s game saw new signing Ferran Torres make his Barca debut following his January move from Manchester City. The forward was in from the start, alongside Luuk de Jong and Ousmane Dembele in attack.
Memphis Depay and Ansu Fati were also on the bench which highlighted the attacking options finally at Xavi’s disposal now that players are back from injury and Covid-19 lay-offs.
In truth it was a quiet debut from Torres who looked understandably rusty. The Spain international hasn’t played since October, and it showed, but now has a week to work with his new teammates before Barca’s next game.
Xavi’s obviously in no doubt about his new signing and spoke after the match about how Ferran, Pedri and Ansu will all play a big role between now and the end of the season.
“Those three are going to help us a lot,” he said. “Pedri and Ferran need minutes and rhythm of matches after time out, but Ansu has come straight back with a goal. All of them are going to contribute massively this season.”
Pedri reminds us just how good he is
One of the big positives from Wednesday’s game was the return of Pedri. The 19-year-old came on for the second half but was probably the least surprised of anyone when he ended up playing extra-time too. That’s now the 12th time he’s played extra-time in the last 12 months.
Pedri’s been forced to watch from the sidelines this season as Nico and Gavi have staked a claim for regular performances and seemed hungry to make up for lost time, almost scoring with virtually his first contribution.
Indeed he showed once again how crucial he will be for Barca going forwards and Xavi’s side looked a far better team in the second half with the teenager on the pitch.
Xavi now has a great problem when it comes to selecting his midfield with all three youngsters fighting hard for a spot. Could we see Frenkie de Jong heading to the bench now? Might Xavi even consider leaving Sergio Busquets out? We’re about to find out.
Ansu back with a bang
Xavi also had Ansu Fati back against Real Madrid and the striker duly delivered his fifth goal of the season after less than 20 minutes on the pitch with a header that sent the game into extra-time.
It was the perfect return from Ansu who has not featured since the start of November when a hamstring injury forced him off in the 3-3 draw at Celta Vigo. His comeback has taken a while with Barca seemingly ultra-cautious to avoid any further injury setbacks for the rest of the season.
The hope is that Ansu can now go on an injury-free run in the second half of the season and this goal should give him a big lift. Goals have been an issue for Barca this season but should be a less of a problem now with Ansu back and Torres in the squad.
Ansu’s latest goal means he has now scored in each of his last three appearances for Barca, has five in just 368 minutes this season and has now netted twice against Real Madrid in his career. And he’s still only 19.
De Jong delivers again
Talking of goals, there’s also the option of Luuk de Jong who kept his place in the starting XI after scoring against Real Mallorca and Granada and found the net for the third straight game to make it 1-1.
In truth De Jong could have scored before he made it 1-1. The Dutchman had a couple of good headed chances but could not beat Thibaut Courtois in the Real Madrid goal.
The striker’s actually looked a different player in 2022. There have been three goals, a bicycle kick that hit the bar and even a scorpion kick that went just over against Granada.
3 - Since arriving in Spain, Luuk de Jong has scored in three straight games in all competitions for the first time and he is one of five LaLiga players to have scored the most goals in 2022 in all comps (three). Confidence. pic.twitter.com/KMqzfFXJmw— OptaJose (@OptaJose) January 12, 2022
Xavi continues to back the Dutchman, despite the exit rumors, and even said after the match he’ll keep playing if he keeps scoring.
“I already said that Luuk is part of the squad,” he said. “No one is going to play for the name but for their performance, because they deserve it. Luuk is scoring goals, making a difference. If he continues to perform he will continue playing.”
Circumstances have offered De Jong a chance at Barca, when he looked almost certain to leave, and despite all the criticism the 31-year-old is making the most of it currently.