FRIDAY’S BIG STORIES
XAVI HAS DONE SOME JOB AT BARCELONA
Upon Xavi’s appointment in October 2021, Barcelona were facing what felt like an existential crisis. They were sat ninth in the La Liga table, third in their Champions League group and a financial crisis hung heavy over the Camp Nou.
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Xavi made 767 appearances for Barca as a player and won eight La Liga titles and four Champions League crowns. In total, he won 27 trophies, scored 85 goals and produced 184 assists. He – even more so than Lionel Messi - was the reference point as Barca redefined club-level success.
Mismanagement at boardroom level had provoked decline on the pitch. Messi’s brilliance had masked much of the mismanagement, but when those boardroom missteps led to Messi’s exit, the club was left staring into the abyss.
It once again turned to its reference point – Xavi – to recalibrate the club. However, it appeared a stark challenge for a novice coach. And yet, they now sit second in Liga – beating Real Madrid 4-0 in the Clasico on their trot up the table - and will welcome Eintracht Frankfurt to Camp Nou next Thursday in a healthy position – after a 1-1 draw at the Deutsche Bank Park - as they aim to progress to a Europa League semi-final.
In truth, Barca were not at their best on Thursday, and were lucky to escape at parity. Djibril Sow missed one very presentable chance in a first half the hosts dominated before Ansgar Knauff gave Eintracht a deserved lead with a sensational strike just after the interval. And if Jesper Lindstrøm had doubled the lead just minutes later it would have been no less than they deserved. Yet, Ferran Torres finished off very much a Barcelona-esque goal with 66 minutes gone.
Barcelona - to coin a phrase – got away with one; they were outplayed for large swathes of the match by the ninth-placed team in the Bundesliga.
Squad depth – and quality – remains a remnant of boardroom mismanagement; for example, the absences of Sergino Dest and Dani Alves led to Ronald Araujo shuffling right and Eric Garcia starting in central defence. This led to an imbalance in Xavi’s set-up. Particularly given Filip Kostic’s - stationed on the left - importance to Eintracht’s attacking patterns.
However, to continue the coinage of overused phrases, it is a sign of a good team to play below their level and emerge with a result. It very much feels like Barcelona are on an upward trajectory. And Xavi’s post-match comments were illustrative of that, criticising the length of the grass - eye roll emoji - speaks of a club no longer engulfed by crisis. Here is what he said.
"I think the pitch will work better for us (in the return match at home). Tonight the ball was not circulating well, that is another fact,” Xavi said after the match.
“It meant that we had to make one extra control of the ball and everything was slower because of that. It will be different at Camp Nou with our fans, we feel very comfortable when we play at home. We need our fans, we need that support like it was for them tonight in their stadium.
“But I am objective, we did not play a great match tonight, that's for sure. But we competed and we ended with a draw."
These pitch gripes - just a matter of months after his predecessor, Ronald Koeman said the club only had a future because of him - is illustrative of the impact Xavi has had on the club, with the focus now firmly set towards on-pitch performance.
From an existential crisis to gripes about the pitch is some turnaround.
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WEST HAM FINALLY HAVE HOME ADVANTAGE
West Ham have come a long way since the post was voted Man of the Match in their Premier League game against Hull City in 2016.
On Thursday night, they drew 1-1 with Lyon in the first-leg of their Europa League quarter-final despite the first-half dismissal of Aaron Cresswell. Should it have been a red card? Well, Mouusa Dembele, the player felled by Cresswell as he bore down on goal with a heavy touch, produced the evening's more insightful piece of analysis with a knowing wink - picked up on camera - that aligned itself with the Warm-Up's thinking: foul, absolutely; sending off, no chance.
That's football. It is often a game of injustice. Successful teams accept this fact, and react accordingly. West Ham - despite Hammers boss David Moyes' yellow card for debating the sending off with referee - reacted accordingly. They adjusted - driven forward by a raucous home crowd - took the lead through the excellent Jarrod Bowen and could have furthered their advantage through the excellent Michail Antonio. Tanguy Ndombele would ensure that the tie would go to the Groupama Stadium finely poised.
Taking a lead into the second leg would have, of course, been handy but the result speaks to a club that has been transformed in recent years.
Much of the credit must go to David Moyes for his work with the players. However, his second tenure has also seen the relationship between the club and its fans rebuilt. And a renewed atmosphere at the London Stadium has played a crucial role in the club's renaissance.
The Hammers left the Boleyn ground in 2016 to move to the London Stadium. The Boleyn willed West Ham to 7th in the club's final year at the stadium but the trajectory was downward from there with finishes of 11th, 13th, 10th and 16th as the move flirted with disaster and relegation. The move – it is a fairly established fact - sullied the relationship between the club and fans. The atmosphere was often toxic.
The club has addressed some of the teething issues but the real rehabilitation began in absentia, with West Ham finishing sixth last season in a fan-less stadium. The sense of togetherness that enveloped the ground after Cresswell's exit - he was applauded off - was absent before that enforced hiatus. The connection between the fans and team has been renewed. It seemed for a long stretch that West Ham had themselves a new ground but lacked a home.
However, an enforced absence coupled with an uptick in results has renewed the relationship between fans and the team - even if one fan was a little too overzealous as their late pitch invasion brought a West Ham counter-attack to an abrupt end.
The London Stadium is beginning to feel a lot like home. And after years of toxicity, the club finally has home advantage there.
60-MINUTE GAMES INCOMING
The i report that trials of 60-minute matches could occur as early as next month. The Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) intends to test the concept at the U23 Revelation Cup. The International Football Association Board (IFAB) have to sanction any match for it to be deemed an official trial.
The basics of the proposals are that there will be two 30-minute halves of football with the clock stopped every time the ball is deemed not live. Studies from the The CIES Football Observatory have shown that football games tend to see in-play action for roughly 60 minutes. The theory is that having a 60-minute match with the clock running only when the ball is in play should induce better gameplay.
An IFAB spokesman told the i that the proposal had not yet been formally discussed, never mind given the go ahead.
VETERAN STILL HAS IT MKI
Dimitri Payet, born 29 March 1987, still very much has it
VETERAN STILL HAS IT MKII
Roy Hodgson CBE, born 9 August 194, still very much has it.
A weekend stacked with football. Eurosport – the home of European football – begins its live minute-by-minute coverage with Stuttgart v Borussia Dortmund on Friday night and concludes with Levante v Barcelona on Sunday evening.
Casting his eye over all of that is one Tom Adams.
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