Xavi off to a winning start...just
Xavi took charge of Barcelona for the first time on Saturday and guided his team to a 1-0 victory over Espanyol to end a run of four games without a win in La Liga.
The first half was particularly impressive as Xavi finally had Barcelona looking like Barcelona again in front of 74, 418 fans who were back to fill the Camp Nou.
The new boss also raised a few eyebrows with his team selection, handing highly-rated 17-year-old Ilias Akhomach his first-team debut. Ilias was one of eight La Masia graduates in the starting XI on Saturday night.
Barca pressed high, kept hold of the ball and looke a much-improved side until they clearly tired mentally and physically in the second half and were a little fortunate to hang on to the win.
Yes, Xavi’s men rode their luck at times and were far from convincing, but this was still a positive performance that offered supporters plenty of optimism for the future under the new coach.
Chances for Ilias and Abde
A lot of the pre-match talk had centered on who would play in attack with Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, Sergio Aguero, and Martin Braithwaite all out injured.
Xavi surprised pretty much everyone by starting Ilias who probably should have scored with Barca’s first real chance of the match too but skied his effort from close range.
The teenager only lasted 45 minutes but offered some real promise and will be hoping for more opportunities now Xavi is at the helm.
Ilias was replaced by 19-year-old Ez Abde at half-time who made more of an impact with his willingness to run with the ball to try to make things happen. He almost made it 2-0 by forcing an own goal shortly after arriving.
⚠️ | QUICK STAT— SofaScore (@SofaScoreINT) November 20, 2021
Barcelona's 19-year-old Moroccan talent Abdessamad Ezzalzouli successfully completed 6 dribbles against Espanyol – no other player completed more than 4 dribbles in the Derbi barceloní tonight.
He only came on at half-time. #BarcaEspanyol pic.twitter.com/enfohqMN63
Abde’s clearly still very raw but could become an option for Barca this season, particularly with the club admitting this week that January signings are looking unlikely because of the club’s continued financial problems.
Xavi’s decision to go with the young duo suggests he’s more than willing to trust in the club’s young players and also highlights his desire to play with wingers.
Gavi becoming undroppable?
Ilias wasn’t the only 17-year-old on the pitch for Barcelona, as Gavi made just his eighth La Liga start. You wouldn’t know it though as the midfielder put in yet another impressive display and made it look like he’d been playing in the first team for years.
The lack of attacking options saw Gavi out on the left against Espanyol but that didn’t seem to bother him at all. He caught the eye with his tenacity, composure and clever passes and played in Memphis with a superb reverse ball for the penalty.
Gavi won more duels (10) and made more tackles (5) than any other Barcelona player against Espanyol.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 20, 2021
Getting stuck in. pic.twitter.com/TZs0Sh3V1X
Gavi was taken off to a huge applause from the Camp Nou faithful on 70 minutes and received a big hug from his manager which spoke volumes.
It will be interesting to see where Gavi plays when Xavi has all his midfielders fit and available. The new boss is certainly spoilt for choice in midfield with Nico also staking a claim and Pedri still to come back. All of which has seen Riqui Puig drop further down the pecking order.
Xavi will certainly have some difficult decisions to make regarding his midfield and it’s tough to see how Gavi can be left out when he plays like this. Yet it’s a good problem for the new boss to have.
Mingueza the weak link for Barcelona
One player who didn’t have a good night in the derby was Oscar Mingueza at right-back. The defender spoke out against Ronald Koeman before the match but was comfortably Barca’s worst performer against Espanyol.
Mingueza looked uncomfortable at full-back all night, particularly against Raul de Tomas, and put in a very shaky showing before going off late on with cramp.
The defender’s performance will be of concern, particularly ahead of a crucial Champions League match against Benfica up next on Tuesday at the Camp Nou.
It seems unlikely Sergino Dest will be back in time after a back injury, while Dani Alves (who you suspect may end up being first choice in the second half of the season) can’t play until January.
Memphis the match-winner again
When it comes to winning matches for Barcelona, Memphis Depay is the man so far this season with his seventh La Liga goal coming in his 13th La Liga appearance for the Catalan giants.
It was a pressure penalty for the Dutchman too but he despatched it pretty confidently to secure a much-needed three points for his team.
7 - No player has won more points with his goals than @FCBarcelona's Memphis Depay in @LaLigaEN this season (7 points with 7 goals, level with Mikel Oyarzabal , 7 with 6). Critical. pic.twitter.com/EMjWul7bvN— OptaJose (@OptaJose) November 20, 2021
It’s probably worth pointing out that Memphis missed from the spot the last time he had a penalty for Barca. That was in the 1-0 defeat to Rayo Vallecano that proved to be Ronald Koeman’s last match in charge.
The Dutchman made no such mistake this time around to score the first goal of the new Xavi era. Memphis may have his limitations but he has been doing the business for Barca with Messi gone and Ansu Fati and Dembele out injured again.