Xavi is back!
Let that sink in.
Xavi. Is. Back.
This is great news. We get to add a new romantic element to all the existing narrative about Barcelona’s thoroughbred DNA, Cruyff, Pep, Dream Teams, heritage, percentage possession wins, positional football… Now Xavi’s comeback from his long exile suffering in Qatar also becomes a part of the story.
LaLiga also recovers one of the biggest whiners the game has ever known – Xavi’s complaints about the state of pitches, poor weather or even the fact that opposing teams played with 11 players are memorable. And of course, and speaking more seriously, the competition also welcomes back an immense footballing talent who finally arrives at the place where many of us thought he belonged well before he finished his career as a player. This is great news for Spanish football fans in terms of interest in the competition… And Barcelona may even start to play decent football again, who knows?
You know full well what Xavi is going to find in his home club: a dysfunctional squad with a handful of veterans looking past their peak, no cash to sign new players and an exciting vintage of kids who still look raw but who will no doubt benefit from his coaching. Xavi knows this; one of his biggest challenges will be to make tough decisions about players he shared the dressing room with in favour of the young talent coming from the ranks. I’m also dying to see the reactions of that bizarre section of ultra Barcelona fans when Xavi decides to field two DMs or send Piqué as a centre-forward with ten minutes left. He’s got the whole public in his favour, but he’ll quickly see how strong that support is, both inside and outside the club.
Of course, this is a team who lived off Messi’s talent for the last few years, and that now needs to find their own identity again. Xavi seems the right man to deliver just that, and once you look at the squad, as Simeone said, it isn’t really that poor a team. Xavi takes the team in 9th position and barely alive in Europe. His upside is great, and he’s got some of the tools to rebuild a recognisable Barcelona, although he’ll have to wait for a couple of seasons until he can sign some big names to take the side to the next level.
Is the Xavi signing a desperate bet to try to go back to a past that’s no longer reachable? That could well be the case, but this seems like the right decision for the current Barcelona, even if it was taken a few months late.
Shall we? Let’s start. Remember, it’s ‘1’ for a home win, ‘X’ for a draw and ‘2’ for an away win.
1. Athletic de Bilbao (8th) vs Cádiz (18th): 1. (5/11, 21:00)
This is a must win for Athletic if they want to jump a few spots and start contending for European competition spots, which is where they should be because of their coach. Cadiz haven’t recovered after a few players spent the night out following a defeat away from Cadiz a month ago, and it somehow feels like they need some fresh blood in December, or else they will end up relegated.
2. Espanyol (11th) vs Granada (14th): 1. (6/11, 14:00)
Half of the Spanish media announced the inevitable firing of Granada’s coach, Robert Moreno, quite a few times in the first couple of months this season. Not only did the team look terrible, but he doesn’t have any friends in the sports news world after having tried to take Luis Enrique’s job with the national team. But surprise, surprise, Granada got a few decent results in a row (2W/2D in their last four) and things are now looking up for Mr Moreno. He now faces another Moreno, Vicente, who coaches Espanyol and who looks like he knows what he’s doing.
By the way, this is possibly THE WORST kick off time in Spain for a weekend match. THE WORST. It’s not that you don’t care for the faithful fans that go to the stadium and give the match its colour, but also you don’t give a flying f**k about the Spanish fans who want to watch it at home. I really can’t understand this choice by LaLiga.
3. Celta (15th) vs Barcelona (9th): X. (6/11, 16:15)
Every time I leave Celta’s bandwagon they go and win a match, just to remind me that a team with Aspas, Mendes and Mina can always upset someone. Not that they’re playing well or getting huge results, but I can’t quite write them off in any given match. Even less when the unpredictable, pre-Xavi Barcelona visits Vigo after an extremely tense win in Kiev. The visitors are progressively recovering some injuries that Koeman sorely missed in his final matches with the team, and that will help caretaker manager Sergi Barjuán to get the structure ready for the new coach.
Vigo is always a tough trip for Barcelona. Let’s go for the non-committal “X” and wait to analyse the Xavi effect in the upcoming weeks.
4. Alavés (17th) vs Levante (19th): 1. (6/11, 18:30)
Alavés looked Segunda-bound and then won twice, drew at the Camp Nou and they now feel like they do belong in LaLiga. The fact that they host Levante is a wink from the calendar, as they should be able to get another three points and get closer to the middle of the table. In these last three matches they have conceded only once, and that is the biggest difference when compared to their version at the start of the season: they can close teams down and keep control of proceedings in their own half.
After the coaching change, one could say that Levante look worse. Their defence is simply awful – 10 conceded in their last three matches – and they look fragile. Their home defeat to (glub!) Granada last weekend (3-0) is one of those events that can derail a whole season. They still have Morales & co upfront, but I can’t see them getting a point in Vitoria.
5. Real Madrid (2nd) vs Rayo Vallecano (6th): 1. (6/11, 21:00)
As we mentioned in the weekend summary last Monday, Vinicius keeps growing. In midweek, an average performance by the Brazilian saw him assist Benzema twice. That’s where we’re at now: he consistently creates chances, in some cases out of nowhere, and even converts a few on his own. His growth has been impressive.
The rest of the team does not look as incisive, in shape nor determined to win. Ancelotti needs to work a lot on the defensive positioning and the level of intensity, because what we’ve seen so far both in Spain and Europe will not get the team to contend in both competitions.
This Rayo visit is a lot more interesting than it’s been traditionally, mainly because this Rayo is a much-improved version of the hugely hailed ones such as Jemez’s. This season, I have seen very few teams that exploit the opposition’s weaknesses as well as Iraola’s team, which speaks highly of the Basque coach. He was always a smart and elegant player, and has translated that into his coaching job.
Can they pull off an upset at the Bernabeu? It all depends on the hosts’ level of focus. I tend to believe that Carletto will rotate a few positions, which paradoxically should increase the intensity and physical level of the side. I’ll go for a conservative “1”, but don’t be surprised if we see Real Madrid take a few hits from their intelligent opponents.
6. Villarreal (13th) vs Getafe (20th): 2. (7/11, 14:00)
The upset of the week. Yes, they did well vs Young Boys, but the hosts look as disjointed as ever. They’ve lost three and drawn one in their last four LaLiga matches, Emery has been openly flirting with Newcastle and the squad looks beat. To me, the biggest sign of alert happened last weekend vs Valencia, when the ref pointed at the penalty spot after Alberto Moreno’s challenge in the box and not even one Villarreal player even bothered protesting. Mind you, I didn’t think it was such a clear-cut call.
Last weekend Getafe won their first match of the season, and even though that didn’t allow them to leave the bottom of the table, things are looking up. Coach Quique seems to have settled well and an away win should get the spirits high in Getafe.
7. Valencia (10th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th): 1. (7/11, 16:15)
I guess I was too quick calling Valencia “Bordalesque” but they did start the season with a few performances that looked trademark Getafe. Now we’ve seen ups and downs, including a terrible loss to soft Betis two weeks ago and an indeed Bordalesque display against also softies Villarreal last week. They’re not quite there yet, even though the squad is clearly better than Getafe’s.
Which Valencia version will show up against Atleti? Despite their disappointing display in Liverpool and the increasingly obvious gap in the middle of their back four, the visitors are as tough and tactically savvy as they come. The surprise is that their squad, at least on paper top level, is starting to crumble in places where no one expected them to suffer that much: back four and midfield.
The Atleticos will be exhausted and frustrated with their CL situation, so the advantage to Valencia is obvious. If they can get Guedes involved and take advantage of their left side, we’ll see a clear home win.
8. Mallorca (12th) vs Elche (16th): 2. (7/11, 18:30)
This has all the potential to be a quite entertaining football match. Both teams play better than their respective rankings show and have a few talented players who can make any match worth watching. I’m going to go against all evidence and support Elche in this one. They travel poorly, but their defence is better than Mallorca’s and they should be comfortable waiting for the hosts to charge forward. On top of that, Pastore has started to show glimpses of his talent, and if the team can provide him with the support he needs in terms of not running backwards, they will collect some results sooner rather than later.
9. Osasuna (7th) vs Real Sociedad (1st): 1. (7/11, 18:30)
I watched the visitors’ draw in their Europan home match vs Sturm Graz and I couldn’t help thinking of the number of chances that they waste in every single match. They generate a lot going forward, but their strikers can ‘t quite put all those chances away. If they had a dependable scorer – and no, Isak still needs a lot more consistency to reach the “dependable” category – this would be an extremely scary team.
Even without converting all those opportunities, they already lead LaLiga but have a tough outing versus a rested Osasuna, who have become a fantastic squad exploiting other teams’ weaknesses and fatigue. This looks like a home win. At some point, injuries and their shallow bench have to start taking its toll on Real Sociedad.
10. Betis (5th) vs Sevilla (3rd): 1. (7/11, 21:00)
A Sevilla derby is just what the doctor ordered to finish the weekend. And it’s been a while since both teams were so high up the standings at the same time, although their good performances in LaLiga are not translating into their respective European campaigns. Sevilla’s home loss on Wednesday and Betis brutal defeat in Leverkusen on Thursday bring some bitterness to the derby. Pellegrini’s teams tend to have one or two breakdowns during the season, but they also react well after them. I tend to believe that Betis, while prone to error at the back, have a more accomplished game from midfield up. Sevilla are hard to beat, but I think the home field factor will influence the match in the first derby with public in what now seems ages.
1. Athletic de Bilbao (8th) vs Cádiz (18th):
2. Espanyol (11th) vs Granada (14th):
3. Celta (15th) vs Barcelona (9th):
4. Alavés (17th) vs Levante (19th):
5. Real Madrid (2nd) vs Rayo Vallecano (6th):
6. Villarreal (13th) vs Getafe (20th):
7. Valencia (10th) vs Atlético de Madrid (4th):
8. Mallorca (12th) vs Elche (16th):
9. Osasuna (7th) vs Real Sociedad (1st):
10. Betis (5th) vs Sevilla (3rd):