Girona 0-1 Barcelona: Pedri's landmark, Raphinha's struggles and ...
“You win leagues with games like these!”
You could hear it shouted loud from Barcelona’s dressing room after a 1-0 win they were made to work for.
Xavi’s side strengthened their position as La Liga leaders with a narrow victory at Girona and are now six points ahead of Real Madrid, who play on Sunday at home to Real Sociedad.
That’s the good news for Barca, who survived a strong Girona response after Pedri put them ahead in the 61st minute.
But there was bad news, too. In-form Ousmane Dembele was taken off injured early in the first half and is a major doubt for the Europa League knockout round tie against Manchester United, with the first leg to come on February 16.
These were the major talking points after Barcelona’s eighth consecutive win in all competitions.Raphinha fails to impress
Since the recent blossoming of Barcelona’s newly favoured four-man midfield, questions have been raised over the role Raphinha will have in Xavi’s plans. The manager insisted on Friday that “Rapha will be important, we need every player”, but the 26-year-old did not impress.
The Brazilian had a perfect chance to shine in his best position on the wing against mid-table opposition (Girona are now 12th). It is fair to say he was one of his side’s worst performers and will have done little to address concerns he is not living up to his significant price tag (£55million) of last summer. That’s a lot of money for Barca right now.
Raphinha lost possession 24 times at Girona, more than any other Barcelona player has in a single league match all season. He wasted two good openings on goal, struggled to make an impact with his dribbling and failed to create any chances of note.
Dembele has lost possession more than any other Barca player this season (229 times). Raphinha is second (198), but the Frenchman — who had recently been showing glimpses of his best — has played 312 minutes more.
At Girona, the attacking line was completed by Ansu Fati in a central position normally occupied by the suspended Robert Lewandowski. His game was not great either. Fati’s injury problems have been well documented, and he lacks the burst of speed that made him so special when he first broke into the side in the 2019-20 season. Xavi, however, was aware this was not an easy game for the 20-year-old.
He said: “He helped the team, but playing as a No 9 is not his ideal position.”Loving life without Lewandowski?
The results are superb: Barcelona have won all three of the games Lewandowski has missed through suspension, and all by the same 1-0 scoreline. (This is the first time in 43 years Barcelona have won three consecutive league games 1-0.)
Still, the team can’t wait to have him back.
“It’s impossible not to notice when you miss a player like Lewandowski,” Xavi said after the Girona win. The stats tell the same story.
Three matches may be a small sample size, but without him on the pitch, Barcelona have seen their average shot total cut almost in half, from 17.1 to 8.7. They have faced more attempts on their own goal, too: up to an average of 11.7 from 7.3.
Barcelona have crossed the ball into the box an average of 12.8 times per match with Lewandowski on the pitch. In the matches without him, that average has dropped to 10. Their passing accuracy in the final third, as well as the number of fouls won and fouls conceded has also worsened in his absence.
It has not been pretty. But Xavi has pulled it off and the wait to have his star man back in La Liga is finally over. He will return for the trip to Real Betis on Wednesday evening.Alba switch unlocks goal
Xavi has been accused in Barcelona of struggling to improve the team in-game, or of not making an impact with his substitutions. This weekend he deserves a shoutout.
The decision to bring on Jordi Alba at half-time proved to be spot on after the Spaniard provided the assist for Pedri to score the winner — which came after a sequence of intensity the away side simply did not generate during the first 45 minutes.
Barca registered zero attacks down their left flank in the first half, which is telling. Dembele’s injury played a role and the Catalans tried to push through Raphinha on the other side. But Marcos Alonso did not add what the team needed in attack. Xavi saw they needed a greater threat, and Alba was introduced in his place.
“Dembele’s injury completely changed our game plan,” Xavi said. “We wanted to give a lot of width with him and Raphinha on the wings to make room for our guys inside. In the second half, we needed something else there and Jordi Alba was very good.”
Alejandro Balde could have been another valuable asset, but the Catalan manager is trying to balance the minutes between all his options at left-back.
On paper, there don’t seem to be many reasons not to give every minute to promising 19-year-old Balde, who has already shone on big stages such as the Supercopa Clasico. At the same time, Xavi does not want to lose the trust of one of his most experienced players. Alba, at 33, still has a lot to offer.Pedri on a different level
At the Supercopa, it was Gavi. This weekend, it was Pedri’s turn to shine. The 20-year-old came on from the bench after Dembele’s injury and was comfortably the best player.
His winning goal came as he celebrated his 100th appearance for the club. Only one Barca player has reached that total at a younger age: Bojan Krkic.
Pedri was outstanding. He started the game as an attacking midfielder and ended up as a false nine — further proof of the squad problems Xavi had ahead of this game. In any phase of the match, though, Barcelona’s play improves if the ball is at his feet.
“For us, Pedri is a difference-maker in the way he influences our game,” Xavi said.
“If you add to that mix him scoring and assisting… then you end up with one of the best players in the world in this position. And he’s only 20.”
Pedri is, in fact, adding those dimensions to his play. In his 100 matches for Barca, he has scored 15 goals. Four of them were under Ronald Koeman, in 56 appearances. In 12 fewer games under Xavi, he has scored 11.Clean sheet record for Ter Stegen
Barcelona didn’t end the game comfortably. Far from it. But — once again — the team got over the line, and goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s numbers just keep getting better.
The German has 14 clean sheets in La Liga this season — no goalkeeper across Europe’s top five leagues has more.
He had two people to thank in the main — Ronald Araujo, who made an important clearance at the far post, and Girona’s Ivan Martin, who missed a glorious close-range chance to equalise late on.
But the name Xavi wanted to highlight was that of Eric Garcia. The former Manchester City defender made his first league start in three months and looked strong.
“Eric’s game has been so solid on both ends, attack and defence,” Xavi said.
“He was especially good in the second half when he carried the ball more, divided the opposition’s pressure and was really precise with his passing.
“I trust a lot in him, I’ve always said it. In terms of ball distribution, he is one of the best.”
(Top photo: David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)