“The defeat that really hurt was the one against Girona,” Xavi under pressure, said this week after trying to find the bright side of his side’s stumble against Antwerp that also cost the club a couple of million euros (dollars) in potential prize money.
Xavi is calling Barcelona’s Spanish league game at Valencia on Saturday “a final” while insisting that he has the backing of the club and his teammates.
The loss at home to regional rival Girona left Barcelona in fourth place at seven points adrift of the surprising leader. Real Madrid is in second place, five points clear of Barcelona, while Atletico Madrid is level on points with Barcelona in third place but has an extra game to play.
The good news for Barcelona is Valencia has troubles of its own. Rubén Baraja’s team is winless in its last four league games and has lost its last five meetings with Barcelona since a draw in December 2020.
Xavi’s status has also been damaged by speculation in Spain’s sports media regarding the squad list he gave for the Antwerp visit. The list initially did not include team heavyweights Robert Lewandowski and Ilkay Gundogan, but they were both then included and played. Xavi said the decision to later add the two stars was reached in consensus with sports director Deco and other club officials, while Deco said it was the coach’s alone.
“You (the press) are generating a controversy where there is none,” Xavi said. “I have the complete backing of (club) president (Joan Laporta) and Deco.”
Real Madrid hosts Villarreal on Sunday with a chance to move one point ahead of Girona.
Madrid meets the “Yellow Submarine” after fighting back for a 3-2 win at Union Berlin on Tuesday to ensure it finished the Champions League group phase with six wins in as many games.
Jude Bellingham leads La Liga with 12 goals and will face a Villarreal defense that has conceded 29 times. That’s the most goals of any team outside the relegation zone.
Atletico faces three games in eight days and the chance to close on, and possibly overtake, Girona and Madrid.
Atletico’s visit to Athletic Bilbao on Saturday is on paper the most demanding of the games squeezed in before the league takes a winter break. Bilbao is in fifth place and only five points behind Diego Simeone’s bunch.
After that, Atletico hosts Getafe on Wednesday then welcomes Sevilla on Dec. 23 to play a match from Round 4 that was postponed due to a heatwave in September.
Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann is two goals shy of the 173 by Luis Aragonés, Atletico’s all-time leading scorer. Griezmann scored in a 2-0 win over Lazio in the Champions League on Wednesday.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer
Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press