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Even Xavi Hernandez himself probably did not expect Barcelona to make so much progress in his first few months at the helm. When the club turned to their legendary former midfielder in November, they faced a myriad of issues on and off the field.
Lionel Messi, their greatest ever player, had departed a few months earlier. Barcelona continued to be hamstrung by financial problems. The team, previously managed by Ronald Koeman, did not have a discernible identity.
For all that Xavi was a popular appointment with the Camp Nou faithful, he was something of a gamble too. This is his first coaching job in Europe after a comfortable few years at Al Sadd in Qatar.
He was walking into a situation which even the most experienced of managers would find testing. Even though money was unexpectedly made available in the January transfer window, there was no guarantee that the new arrivals would be successful.
Yet Xavi has exceeded expectations. Barcelona are within three points of second place having been eighth shortly before the winter break. They are the favorites to win the Europa League after knocking out Galatasaray in the round of 16. The La Liga title will be beyond them, but that was always going to be the case given the gap to Real Madrid when Xavi took charge.
Just as important as results is the fact that Xavi has given Barcelona an identity again. To the surprise of some, he has embraced fast attackers like Ferran Torres and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, despite having previously suggested that the latter would not be a good fit for the club. Barcelona are playing excellent attacking soccer again, as they proved in a stunning 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid before the international break.
A few weeks ago Sevilla were still in with a chance of finishing top of the table. That would have been a phenomenal achievement, and a failure to do so would not at all be a poor reflection on Julen Lopetegui.
Finishing in the top four was the target at the start of the season and Sevilla remain on course to do that.
There is no doubt that Lopetegui’s side are going through a sticky patch at the moment, though. Losing to West Ham United in the last 16 of the Europa League was a blow for a club that prides itself on its recent success in that competition. And while Lopetegui’s charges are on a long unbeaten run in La Liga – 15 matches, with their last defeat coming at the end of November – they have drawn too many games in 2022.
Indeed, Sevilla have won only two of their last 11 league matches. They might not have lost in that time, but they have taken fewer points than they would have done had they won five games and lost six.
Their lead over their arch-rivals Real Betis in fifth place has shrunk to seven points – still a healthy advantage, but one that could soon get slimmer unless Sevilla can turn things around.
While Lopetegui has done a fine job in general this season, his tendency towards caution has proved costly of late.
This is particularly evident away from home, which is one of the reasons Barcelona will fancy their chances of becoming the first team to inflict defeat upon Sevilla in La Liga in over four months.
Sevilla have only won two away games in 2022 in any competition, and one of those was a Copa del Rey encounter with Real Zaragoza of the second division. They have failed to score in two of their last four matches at opposition stadiums in La Liga, and three of their last seven overall. Sevilla have successfully shut out Osasuna, Alaves and Real Sociedad in recent weeks, but they will find it much more difficult to keep Barcelona’s attack under wraps.
Xavi’s side will be full of confidence heading into this match. That thrashing of Real Madrid last month will live long in the memory, but Barcelona will not rest on their laurels. A second-place finish is not usually celebrated at the Camp Nou, but it would be a good achievement in Xavi’s first season. The chance to climb above Sevilla in the standings is an attractive prize on offer this weekend.
Lopetegui will struggle to strike the right balance here. His team need to show more attacking ambition than they have of late, but doing so at the Camp Nou could lead to a demolition. From a betting perspective, the best choice is a Barcelona win to nil.
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|Barcelona vs Sevilla Information|
|Teams||Barcelona vs Sevilla|
|Location||Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain|
|Time||Sunday, 3 April 2022, 15.00 PM EST|
|How to watch||ESPN+|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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