New Straits Times


Defeat by Betis ahead of CL rescue mission away at Bayern


NO sooner has reality hit than Barcelona have to believe in miracles again as Xavi Hernandez’s team seek a victory away at Bayern Munich today to take them into the Champions League last 16.

Four weeks after Xavi was appointed, Barca suffered their first defeat under their new coach on Saturday and as Real Betis’ Juanmi celebrated in the corner at Camp Nou, it felt like a bit of hope began to fizzle.

Xavi arrived as the club’s iconic former midfielder and devoted student of Pep Guardiola, a symbol of a return to the values and principles that Barcelona hold dear and were seen to have lost.

Nobody expected a transforma­tion, that ‘tiki-taka’ would be rekindled overnight or that Memphis Depay would morph into Lionel Messi or that a porous defence would suddenly tighten up.

Few disagreed that Xavi would need time, and most probably a lot of it, to turn Barcelona even into a contender again, let alone a winner of the game’s biggest prizes.

But they might have hoped to steer clear of losing at home to Real Betis, an upwardly mobile team under Manuel Pellegrini with talented players but one that is more likely to finish in La Liga’s top eight than its top four.

Just as they might have thought it possible Barcelona would win at home to Benfica last month, a result that would have rendered Wednesday’s game against Bayern meaningles­s, with progress to the last 16 safely secured.

Instead, the first 30 days of Xavi’s tenure have been yet another exercise in hammering home reality and perspectiv­e.

There have been glimpses of innovation and change but the overriding sense is of familiar flaws being underlined and expectatio­ns being further downgraded.

Consecutiv­e wins over Dynamo Kiev under Ronald Koeman meant there was room for optimism that Barcelona could complete the comeback by beating Benfica at home.

Yet the most likely scenario now is that they finish third and drop into the Europa League, a competitio­n they could win if they took it seriously and one that would also offer them an alternativ­e route back into the Champions League next year.

Bayern might yet aid Barcelona’s cause by fielding a weakened team, with their place at the top of the group already secured and a game against seventh-placed Mainz to come in the Bundesliga on Saturday.

There is also still the possibilit­y of Benfica slipping up against Dynamo Kiev, whose only point in the group came in a goalless draw at home to Benfica back in September.

The defence is vulnerable and the attack is blunt. They could do with Ousmane Dembele, who could be fit enough to start against Bayern.

“The objective is to go and win. We have no choice,” said Xavi.

“If we get the three points, we will be in the last 16. If not, we will be at the mercy of the other game, but the good thing is that it’s in our hands.”

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 ?? EPA PIC ?? Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez (centre) reacts during their La Liga match against Real Betis on Saturday.
EPA PIC Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez (centre) reacts during their La Liga match against Real Betis on Saturday.

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