Credit where it’s due in this one.
Xavi made the right decisions to help his team take down Porto, and qualify for the next round of the Champions League.
Having missed the last two editions, there was a lot of pressure on getting a result in this game. But Barcelona came out with confidence, and played like the superior team throughout.
To make matters even more difficult, the Blaugrana came into the critical fixture on a very poor run of form. That made picking the right team even more of a challenge. In the end, Xavi’s selection made all the difference.
And it will hopefully spark some momentum going into the domestic matches against Atletico Madrid and Girona.
The biggest call of all was on the defensive line. Ronald Araujo, Jules Kounde, and Inigo Martinez were outstanding. But dropping Alejandro Balde in favor of Joao Cancelo on the left was the decision that won Xavi the game.
Anyone who’s watched Manchester City over the years could tell you that Cancelo could not only play from the left side, but that he could thrive from there. Pep Guardiola didn’t just use him there out of necessity, but rather to gain a tactical advantage.
Cancelo is a very smart player. He doesn’t just bomb forward. He connects well with his teammates, and can pick out a final pass when closing in on goal. Because he can go left or right, he’s especially dangerous playing from the left side.
Let him cut in, and he can bury a goal, as he demonstrated with the equalizer. Give him space down the line, and he can pick a pass for the assist, as he showed with the game winner. He makes everything look easy.
In this game, he also helped unlock his countryman Joao Felix, who has struggled in front of goal for months. Felix continued to be wasteful early on, but you could see him growing into the game with energy and confidence, the more he combined with Cancelo.
After seeing this partnership in action, it will be hard for Xavi to not choose Cancelo and Felix for the left side against Atletico Madrid on Sunday.
But there were two other significant decisions that Xavi made that made an impact on the team’s performance.
The combination of Frenkie de Jong, Ilkay Gundogan, and Pedri was the best that the Barca midfield has looked in a long time. Barcelona only had 55% of the possession, but it was sharp, fluid, and intentional.
It wasn’t the days of old with Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta, but you could see an innate creative spark that has been hard to come by in recent years.
These three will need to stay healthy, and continue to improve their form together, for Barcelona to stay on the winning path. No doubt, they are the best Xavi can call on, even if it means playing without a traditional defensive midfielder. With the cover of three center backs, it seems like a system that could work.
But finally, some flowers should be given to Raphinha.
In this match, he set the tone by being aggressive going forward, and working hard off the ball. He showed the importance of having veteran experience in big games.
This game didn’t feel like a one off to me.
This starting eleven seems like the way to go as Barcelona navigates a tricky calendar ahead.
Andreas Christensen can step and rotate with the other center backs. Alejandro Balde can step in and give Joao Cancelo a rest as well.
Ferran Torres and Lamine Yamal are great pieces to have coming off the bench.
I’m not saying that this is the Barca team of the future, but one that can win games in the short term, to be competitive across all competitions.
At a minimum, we can breathe a sigh of relief.
Xavi more than anyone else.
He may not be a perfect manager, and he’s certainly not beyond criticism, but he’s helped this young Barcelona reach another important milestone as the club rebuilds to be among the best in Europe again.
Time to take the next step forward.