The future looks bright
The presenter of El Punt Avui TV’s The Week in Football, Barney Griffiths, analyses the situation at Catalonia’s leading clubs as a new year begins
December was almost a very bleak month for Barça fans in terms of results, even if their team is starting to resemble the kind of Barça they would like to see under the stewardship of returning club legend Xavi. It started with a 1-0 defeat at home to Betis, the first under Xavi, but was followed by a humbling 3-0 Champions League loss in Munich, which saw them plunge out of the competition and into the Europa League, the first time Barça have not qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League since 2000/2001. If that was not bad enough, they then proceeded to twice lose the lead against Osasuna in Pamplona, ultimately having to settle for a point in a 2-2 draw. The next league game saw lowly Elche visit the Camp Nou, the perfect opportunity to exorcise any demons and get the fans optimistic again, and everything was going to plan after 60 mins, with Barça cruising and not looking in any danger at 2-0 up, only for former Girona boss Francisco’s side to pull back two goals in quick succession, exposing the defensive frailties and lack of concentration that have haunted the side this season. It took a dramatic 85th minute winner from substitute Nico Gonzalez to finally capture the three points after superb work by another youngster Gavi, who has been the highlight of the team’s performances over this past month. And without that goal it would have been a winless December for the blaugrana, since their last game of the calendar year brought a 1-1 draw at second-placed Sevilla, even after the hosts had Jules Kounde sent off with some 30 minutes remaining. In all fairness, Xavi’s side deserved much more than they got from those December games, except perhaps from the trip to Munich, and there are clear signs that this youthful team is starting to get to grips with their head coach’s style and implement some of the basic ideas that have made Barça the club they are. Xavi himself has complained about how players do not appear to have been taught “the Barça way” in the past few seasons, and that will take time to change.
Barça go into 2022 facing at least six games in January – four in La Liga, one in the King’s Cup and one against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup on January 13, although if they win that they will face a seventh game in the final against either Atlético or Athletic – before a tough run of games at the beginning of February against Atlético at home and Espanyol away in the league and Napoli at home in the Europa League.
Vicente’s side lie in 11th place in La Liga and made it safely through two rounds of the King’s Cup following three wins and two defeats in December. The defeats were 1-0 at this season’s surprise package Rayo Vallecano, no disgrace there considering that they have only dropped two points from their nine home games so far, and 3-1 at Celta, the latter more disappointing given that the Galicians had only won one of nine home league games prior to Espanyol’s visit. Cup wins at lower division sides SD Solares (3-2) and CD Palencia Cristo Atletico (2-1) gives fans hope of an extended Cup run this year, while Espanyol’s 4-3 home win over Levante left them fifth in the home league table, behind only Rayo, Sevilla, Madrid and Barça.
Prior to meeting Barça in the derby at the RCDE Stadium on February 13, Espanyol face home league games against Elche and Betis, and trips to Valencia, Cádiz and Bilbao in the league, and Ponferradina in the Cup. It is the away form that needs to improve if they are to achieve a top ten finish this season, as Vicente’s side have drawn three and lost six of their nine away league games this season.
A very satisfactory month for Girona was sealed with a 3-1 home win over in-form Burgos at Montilivi on December 17, following another home league win over Leganes (3-0) and a disappointing draw at Ibiza (1-1). The return of talisman forward Cristhian Stuani has galvanised the side and its aspirations for another promotion push this year, the Uruguayan now on 10 league goals for the season. Sandwiched in between those league games were King’s Cup wins at CS Puertollano (5-1) and more impressively at Huesca (1-0), leaving Michel’s side with the chance of further Cup progress in the new year. Girona are now in sixth place in the Second Division, and therefore in a play-off position, although there is plenty of competition, with a whole host of teams within four points down to thirteenth-placed Malaga. A promotion push will require a continuation of the form that has seen them win seven and draw two of their last 11 league games, as the new year throws up a friendly run of games, with visits to Huesca and SD Amorebieta and home games against Fuenlabrada and Lugo, while they face a tough home tie against Osasuna in the Cup on January 6.