Barcelona v PSG talking points: Why Champions League tie is key for Xavi’s future

Barcelona play the most important game of their season so far tonight, one that will likely have a big bearing on Xavi’s future, too.

After declaring themselves underdogs, Barca put on a remarkable show at the Parc des Princes last week — coming away with a 3-2 aggregate lead over Paris Saint-Germain from their Champions League quarter-final first leg.

Looking ahead to the return match at Montjuic, The Athletic’s Barcelona correspondents Laia Cervello Herrero and Pol Ballus discuss the selection decisions Xavi is facing, controversy over ticket prices, and the heated atmosphere awaiting PSG.

Pol: The only doubt, really, in the line-up is the midfield, isn’t it?

Laia: After a weekend in which everyone was rested, the defence will be the same as in the first leg. Jules Kounde, Ronald Araujo and Pau Cubarsi did a great job of nullifying Kylian Mbappe, and Joao Cancelo will be left-back again.

In midfield, with Sergi Roberto suspended, I think Xavi is going to put Ilkay Gundogan and Frenkie de Jong in a double pivot, even if they don’t like this. I don’t think he’ll start Pedri, knowing his injury record. So I think he’ll use Fermin Lopez as a more advanced midfielder on the right and Raphinha on the left.

And then up front: Robert Lewandowski and Lamine Yamal.

Pol: I do think Xavi will use Pedri. Listening to him in the press conference, he sounded quite clear that Pedri has to be very important, and he did say that everyone in the squad is fit enough to play 90 minutes. Pedri has said that he wants to play as much as possible, too, and that if he feels tired he will ask for a change. If he has to play 80 minutes and is tired and can’t play any more, he will say so.

That said, I would be more tempted to put Fermin in. He has performed in all the big games he has played this season. He’s a player who can give his all in applying pressure on the opposition, and he gives Xavi the intensity he will ask for.

Laia: He’s a bit like Gavi, in this respect.

Pol: Yes, and he knows that if he plays, he will play 65 minutes or something like that. Plus, the game will be a long one, and you’ll need people to come on and have an impact. Pedri has added a lot in the two times he’s come off the bench over the past week, in Paris and Cadiz.

Fermin applauds fans after last week’s first leg in Paris (Pedro Salado/Getty Images)

The last time they experimented and put Pedri in the starting line-up when he was just coming back from injury was in the 4-1 defeat in the Supercopa de Espana final against Real Madrid in January, where he was substituted after about an hour because he couldn’t keep up the pace. The match didn’t go well, although it wasn’t Pedri’s fault — there were many factors.

He is a special case and they have to be careful, but as he himself has said, this is the most important game of his career with Barcelona. I think he is dying to play and I don’t blame him. I think he will play but my head tells me that Fermin would be a good option.



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Laia: Maybe it’s Xavi playing games…

Pol: The same thing occurred to me, but I don’t see Xavi playing mind games like Jose Mourinho. It could be. But he’s always been a pretty clear coach.

Laia: Yes, but if he’s going to do it in any game, it’s this one. It’s the most important match of his time as coach. In front of him, he has Luis Enrique, a strategist who can change his approach. He did it in the first leg and it went wrong, but it can also go well.

I don’t think Xavi wants to give him any clues. And having a player like Pedri coming on as a substitute when the game turns bad — and I’m sure it’s going to get bad at some point during the 90 minutes — brings you a lot.

Pol: Maybe. I think if Sergi Roberto wasn’t suspended then he would start because then Gundogan could play further forward. And if Fermin plays, Gundogan can’t play further forward. But maybe that’s why he’s putting Pedri in, even if it’s only for 60 minutes. We’ll see what happens.

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Barca supporters made for a great atmosphere against Napoli in the last-16 (Matteo Ciambelli / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Laia: As for the atmosphere, what do you expect? I think after what happened in Paris, the fans are excited and I expect a big-match occasion. Plus there will be a very hostile reception for Ousmane Dembele. The fans didn’t like him celebrating the goal in Paris the way he did. He was treated very well in Barcelona — and especially by Xavi. There was a lot of patience with him; more than with many others who have performed better. Many people think he betrayed the club in some way.

There are jokes on social media that the Barca fans will give Dembele the same reception as Luis Figo — hopefully without throwing a pig’s head. I can’t see that happening because Figo contributed a lot more to Barca and the feeling of betrayal was greater. Although I do think Dembele will be whistled a lot.

Pol: I agree. I think the atmosphere will be very hostile. Many elements make Barca unlike PSG, and a European tie with a place in the Champions League semi-finals up for grabs — for Barca, it would be their first in five years — brings it all out further.

The ground should be a cauldron of noise, but at the same time, I think the price of the tickets that the club has set for the match is a low blow. As of Tuesday morning, tickets were not fully sold out because the ones that are left are in a price range of €200 to €500. That is a lot of money for a stadium where fan experience is not the best. The ticketing money for this game is important for the club, but it doesn’t work in favour of the atmosphere that needs to be created.



Barca members aren’t attending games at Montjuic – where have they gone?

It will still likely be the most hellish atmosphere at the ground all season, but the Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys is just not the Camp Nou. In fact, the atmosphere at the Montjuic has been a bit unnatural in some way; some fans who attend are not the typical ones we have seen in the last few decades.

Laia: If you stop to think about everything that has happened between PSG and Barca, I can only think of a few teams in Europe that Barca fans are more jealous of. They were the ones who took Neymar in his prime, then Lionel Messi left for them. Before that, they knocked Barca out of the Champions League in the last-16 in 2021, Dembele joined them last summer and Mbappe will — as is expected — be Real Madrid’s new big star next season.

At the Parc des Princes, the match against Barca was one of the most hostile atmospheres I’ve ever seen against them. Local fans were chanting ‘p***Barca’ (f*** Barca) and insulting players during the warm-up.

Then there was the Star Wars thing, with the mosaic and Darth Vader music when the Barca team came out. The theme tune stuff is all part of the fun, but I think Barca are really looking forward to playing them at home.

Pol: There’s going to be quite a big police presence as they believe it’s going to be a fiery game.

Laia: And what do you think a victory or defeat means for Xavi?

Pol: Even if Barcelona lose, the most important people on the board will want him to stay because of a mixture of things — all of which we reported in-depth earlier this month. The board haven’t found a suitable replacement, because they consider that Xavi meets conditions that are hard to find in the current coaching market. And after having done a search, they have concluded that Xavi is the best option for the club. That said, I think Barca (eight points behind Madrid, who are top) no longer have a chance of winning La Liga…



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Laia: I think Barca’s objective is to give a good showing in the Champions League, even if they don’t win it, and in La Liga to finish second and close the gap on Madrid in Saturday’s Clasico.

Pol: It’s why I believe the board is going to ask him to stay, whatever happens. But we’ll have to wait and see what Xavi says about that.

I think Xavi is saying in press conferences that nothing has changed and that everything remains the same, because that’s the position he has to take now. He doesn’t want anything to change this good dynamic they have. But I think in his head, the option is open if the right keys are found and his demands are met. This match will have a big impact on the board, but also for him to feel legitimised to continue.

Laia: I see it the same way, but if there is a defeat of the kind that hurts — another European fiasco such as against Roma (2018), Liverpool (2019) or Bayern Munich (2020) — I wouldn’t be sure that Xavi would want to continue, or that he’d be asked to.

Xavi wanted to enjoy being the coach of the team of his life, and there came a point when that was no longer the case. Saying he was leaving was more liberating for him than for the team. I also think he might have changed his mind — but with the way the season has gone, we will have to wait and see what happens today, and against Madrid on Sunday.

After those games, maybe he’s the one who doesn’t want to continue.

(Top photo: Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

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