Barcelona’s Champions League Progress Shows Inconsistencies
After two years of frustration in the Champions League group stage, Barcelona has a golden opportunity to secure their spot in the knockout rounds when they face Shakhtar Donetsk in Hamburg this Tuesday.
A fourth consecutive victory in Group H would guarantee the Spanish champions’ progression, a feat they haven’t accomplished since 2021 when they were eliminated in the last 16 by Kylian Mbappe’s Paris Saint-Germain.
While Barcelona has shown improvement since the arrival of Xavi as head coach in November of that year, including winning LaLiga last season, their European performances have remained inconsistent and lack the dazzle many, including Xavi himself, hope to witness in their gameplay.
High points like back-to-back 5-0 wins over Real Betis in LaLiga and Royal Antwerp in the Champions League in September have been rare, and the team has struggled to maintain that level of football consistently.
In their previous encounter against Shakhtar at home in October, Barcelona dominated the first half but failed to seal the game, enduring a nervy final stage as the Ukrainians pushed for an equalizer. A similar pattern emerged in the LaLiga Clasico three days later, where Jude Bellingham’s brilliant brace helped Real Madrid secure a victory after Ilkay Gundogan’s opener.
In contrast, Barcelona managed to beat Real Sociedad 1-0 last Saturday despite being on the defensive for much of the match and creating minimal scoring opportunities. Xavi admitted that the team needs to be “self-critical,” acknowledging the inexplicable nature of football.
Xavi’s style of play differs significantly from the team’s peak under Pep Guardiola, during his time as a key player, or the dynamic, swashbuckling performances that led them to Champions League glory in 2015 under Luis Enrique’s guidance. While Xavi has acknowledged that modern football doesn’t allow for the same dominance as in his playing days, he emphasized the team’s commitment to emulate their predecessors.
However, Xavi insisted that flat performances like the one against Real Sociedad in San Sebastian are unacceptable, particularly regarding intensity.
“To win, even when not playing well, is something a champion team does,” he said.
In the second half against Real Sociedad, midfielder Pedri made his comeback from injury after a lengthy absence since August, offering hope for improved fluency in the team’s play.
Xavi also expressed confidence that Robert Lewandowski’s return from an ankle injury, though underwhelming in recent matches, could make a significant impact. Barcelona sorely missed his lethal finishing in the first clash against Shakhtar.
Xavi may reconsider his recent use of a three-center-back formation, seemingly aimed at easing Joao Cancelo’s defensive duties. The attacking Portuguese right-back has shown promise going forward but has struggled defensively during his initial months at the club.
The coach is still searching for a consistent system, and with an abundance of central midfielders and emerging talents like Lamine Yamal and Fermin Lopez, his selection decisions have become more challenging.
By securing qualification on Tuesday with two matches to spare, Xavi can buy more time to refine the team’s strategy before facing tougher opponents in the later stages of the Champions League.