It is hard to see how things could have gone much better for Barça since Atheltic knocked them out of the Copa del Rey back on January 20. Since then, Xavi’s side can definitely be said to have found its mojo, winning nine of twelve games, progressing through two rounds of the Europa League and scoring four goals in a game no fewer than six times in that period. The last of those times was an absolute drubbing of runaway league leaders Real Madrid on their home turf in the Bernabeu just prior to the latest international break, in what seemed to represent a coming of age of Xavi’s side and certainly a confirmation of his credentials as coach at the highest level. Few coaches outplan, outthink and outwit the wily old fox Carlos Ancelotti in the way Xavi did on this occasion, and this glorious performance will live long in the culers’ memory. In truth it could have ended 7-0 or 8-0, such was Barça’s dominance.
Does this mean they can go on and win the league? That still seems highly unlikely given the twelve point difference between the sides, even if Barça do have a game in hand which would cut Madrid’s lead to nine points with nine games to play. But this is football, and stranger things have happened. For now, Xavi and his team will be satisfied with the fact that they are firing on all cylinders and blowing away most teams that stand in their way. It certainly means that they are favourites to win the Europa League, which along with a now almost certain top four league finish and consequent qualification for next year’s Champions League, would be a more than satisfying return from Xavi’s first few months in charge.
As mentioned in previous columns, the arrival of attacking reinforcements in January in the shape of Adama Traore, Ferran Torres and, in particular, Pierre Emerick Aubamayang, has gone a long way to improving what was a toothless side before Christmas, but there can be no doubt that under Xavi Barça’s scintillating brand of football has returned, and with it, fans will hope, the dream of more titles next season.
For their part, Espanyol have also had a positive time of it lately, even if they only played three games during the month of March, having been knocked out of the Copa del Rey in the competition’s earlier stages. Vicente’s side played three league games, two at home and one away, and earned seven points from nine with wins at the RCDE Stadium against Getafe (2-0) and Mallorca (1-0), and a draw (1-1) away at Levante. It has been a welcome change of fortunes for the periquitos, since their form prior to those three games was beginning to suggest they might even be dragged into the relegation battle. The two sides they defeated could be seen as direct rivals in the table, so these were precious victories. They now find themselves in twelfth position in La Liga on 36 points from 29 games, but with a four-point cushion over Rayo below them.
The key partnership for Espanyol has been between top goalscorer Raúl De Tomás and playmaker Sergi Darder. In fact, De Tomas is the league’s third highest scorer and Darder has the third most assists, which just shows how reliant Espanyol are on them for goals. For fans, performances are more practical than spectacular, getting the job done with their support at home, where they have won 80% of their points this season (28 from 36). Away from home is another story, however, and Vicente has his work cut out to change things in that respect as the team stutters towards another mid-table finish. It remains to be seen whether Chinese owner Chen Yansheng will pump funds into the club for transfers this summer, but one thing is for sure, as well as adding to the squad for next season, Vicente’s priority will be to keep hold of RDT and Darder.
Things have got mighty interesting for Girona, who ended March top of the form league in the Second Division after winning all four of their games, including key victories over potential promotion rivals Oviedo and Almeria. That latter win away at the erstwhile leaders was earned against all odds: coach Michel was in the stands missing the first of his two-match sanction; then there were multiple controversial VAR decisions favouring the home side, not least the awarding of an 85th-minute penalty, which was saved and then retaken, only to be blasted high into the stands; goalkeeper Juan Carlos put in a spectacular display, including that late penalty save; and Girona also suffered a late sending off.
The “surreal win”, in the words of Michel, left Girona in 4th place, seven points off second, and therefore with renewed hope of grabbing one of the two automatic promotion places. That would be a real boon, given the club’s painful record in play-offs over the last 12 years or so. When asked about the possibility after the game, Michel said “We’re a long way off that, but if we still had some hope, today was decisive. This is a turning point. It’s a victory which brings us closer to that goal. We will continue to dream as long as we can”.