Barcelona midfielder Pedri (R) made his return from injury against Real Sociedad and Xavi is hoping he will help the team improve (ANDER GILLENEA)
After two years of misery in the Champions League group stage, Barcelona have the chance to book their place in the knock-out rounds against Shakhtar Donetsk on Tuesday in Hamburg.
The Spanish champions can guarantee progress with a fourth consecutive victory in Group H, something they have not managed since 2021, when they were knocked out by Kylian Mbappe’s Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16.
Undoubtedly Barcelona have improved since Xavi arrived in November that year, winning La Liga last season, but they have still struggled in Europe and lacked the sparkle many, including the coach, wishes to see in their game.
Consecutive 5-0 wins over Real Betis in La Liga and Royal Antwerp in the Champions League in September were the high point of the club’s season so far, but they have not produced that football on a consistent basis.
Despite strolling around Shakhtar in the first half of their 2-1 win at home in October, the Catalans did not put the game to bed and suffered in the final stages as the Ukrainians sought a leveller.
It was the same story in the Clasico in La Liga three days after that, except this time Jude Bellingham hit a stunning double to win Real Madrid the game after Ilkay Gundogan’s opener.
By contrast, Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 1-0 on Saturday despite being on the back foot throughout, creating next to nothing before Ronald Araujo’s stoppage time winner.
“Football sometimes is inexplicable,” said Xavi, admitting the team had to be “self-critical”.
Xavi’s football has been a far cry from the team’s peak under Pep Guardiola, when he was a key player, or even from the dynamic, swashbuckling performances that saw them win the Champions League in 2015 with Luis Enrique at the helm.
The coach has previously said that in the modern era it is no longer possible to be as dominant as in his playing days, but that the team would not stop trying to emulate their predecessors.
– ‘Unacceptable’ –
What cannot be allowed, said Xavi, is a performance as flat as against Real Sociedad in San Sebastian.
“Today is an example of what we must not do, above all in terms of intensity — that’s something unacceptable,” the coach told reporters.
“It cannot be. (But) to win, and win not playing well, is something a champion team does.”
In the second half against Real Sociedad, midfielder Pedri made his comeback from injury, having last played in August.
Xavi said he was confident the Canary Islander’s return will help the team play with more fluency.
“Pedri will change the face of the team,” said Xavi.
“It’s very good news for him and for the group.”
Robert Lewandowski returned from an ankle injury in the Clasico as a substitute and started against Real Sociedad but did not contribute much on either occasion.
A return to Germany, where he starred with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, might be ideal for him to get back on track — Barcelona missed his lethal finishing in the first match against Shakhtar.
Xavi may also shift away from the three centre-back formation he has used in the last two games, seemingly designed to ease defensive responsibilities on Joao Cancelo.
The attacking Portuguese right-back has contributed a lot going forward but been a weak link at the back in his first months at the club.
Xavi has not yet found a system he can rely on regularly, perhaps contributing to the team’s inconsistency.
It is also unclear what Barca’s best line-up is when everybody is fit — an abundance of central midfielders and breakthrough talents Lamine Yamal and Fermin Lopez are giving Xavi a selection headache, albeit of the positive variety.
By wrapping up qualification on Tuesday with two matches to spare, the coach will buy himself more time to get his ducks in a row ahead of far more testing fixtures in the Champions League’s later rounds.