Struggling Barcelona in need of another Super Cup boost in Riyadh

Catalans hope tournament in Saudi Arabia can kickstart a revival in second half of La Liga season

The emergence of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal, left, has been one of few positives for Barcelona this season. Getty Images
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It was back on January 12, 2022, in Saudi Arabia when Barcelona fans first saw promise in a Xavi side.

The Catalans lost the game, a Clasico against Real Madrid, but the performance was Barcelona’s best of what had been a troubled season.

Lionel Messi had departed at its start, Antoine Griezmann, too. Sergio Aguero had to retire after barely playing. After a trio of 3-0 defeats, Barcelona failed to progress from their Champions League group for the first time since 2003, and had been as low as ninth in the league by October, prompting the dismissal of Ronald Koeman and the arrival of Xavi.

In Riyadh, a Barcelona side featuring a youthful forward line twice came from behind to make it 2-2 after 90 minutes, before Fede Valverde grabbed Madrid’s winner.

It barely mattered. Barca had been the better side and proved they could go toe-to toe with the runaway La Liga winners Madrid again.

Midfielder Gavi, 17, could match Casemiro, Luca Modric and Toni Kroos. Two months later, Barcelona went to the Bernabeu and won 4-0. A season later, they were Spanish champions once more.

However, the path has been far from smooth since, at a time when financial problems and stadium redevelopment have combined for one of the most turbulent periods in Barcelona’s history.

This season hasn't been a great one. They trail Real Madrid and Catalan neighbours Girona by seven points at the halfway stage of La Liga. They are also playing in front of lower than expected crowds at their temporary Olympic Stadium home.

True, they qualified from their Champions League group for the first time in three years, something about which Xavi pointedly asked why no journalist had congratulated him on last month. After all, Manchester United and Newcastle United, with far higher wage bills, had failed to get out of theirs. But Barcelona fans have been spoiled by success for 18 years.

This version is far from vintage. They’ve not won a game by more than one goal for 20 matches, the latest a 3-2 triumph over fourth-tier Barbastro on Sunday in the Copa del Rey. A stat went viral in Spain last week that showed if La Liga games were over at half time, Barcelona would be 14th in the league. The point is Barcelona take their time to get going and then struggle to control games when they do. They were leading 1-0 against Real Madrid in the October Clasico and lost 2-1 thanks to two Jude Bellingham goals.

Xavi talks up his side publicly, even if most fans have a lower opinion of what they’re seeing. Finally, he was critical of his players after the hard-fought 3-2 win against Almeria in December, when only 34,471 were present at the Olympic Stadium. The average crowd at Camp Nou last season was 82,000. The club optimistically hope their usual home will be partially ready to use by the end of this year.

A much-changed defence has struggled. Barcelona have conceded 22 goals in 19 games – against 20 in 38 last season. Jules Kounde, who played right-back last season, has not been as effective as a central defender – the position he wanted to play. Another defender struggling to reach the levels of last season is left back Alejandro Balde.

Up front, no player beyond Robert Lewandowski, who has been average by his own high standards, has scored more than three goals. The Pole is the only Barcelona player in the top 40 scorers in La Liga with seven. By comparison, Jude Bellingham has 13.

Barcelona continue to be in transition. This is the first full season without Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba – all mainstays of their numerous doubles and treble-winning teams.

The replacements have hardly inspired. Catalan midfielder Oriol Romeo, an honest, physical footballer, pales when compared to Busquets. On loan Joao Felix started well but has tailed off, though fellow new signing Ilkay Gundogan has impressed and Joao Cancelo has been their best defender.

Injuries have been a major issue. Gavi, a world-class central midfielder despite being only 19, tore his cruciate ligament in November. His fantastic foil Pedri, 21, has been restricted to eight starts from 19 league games with ongoing hamstring and muscle injuries.

Ronald Araujo, 24, the Catalans' best centre-back, has been hit by three injuries in the past year. Frenkie de Jong, perhaps the only player to have improved on last season, has missed two months of the campaign with a damaged ankle. Defender Inigo Martinez is also out injured, while goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has been out with a back injury since November.

There have been positives – the emergence of Lamine Yamal, 16, and Fermin Lopez, 20, from a youth system that keeps on producing top-class players. They’ve played 25 and 19 games, respectively, so far this term in all competitions.

Barcelona play Osasuna, last season’s beaten Copa del Rey finalists, in Riyadh in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final on Thursday night.

Osasuna – which means "health" in Basque – have never won a trophy in their 103-year history. The team hail from Pamplona, a wealthy, expanding city of 200,000 best known for the San Fermin 'Running of the Bulls' festival every July.

Osasuna, who are 12th in La Liga, will earn €2 million in prize money if they win the four-team tournament – a quarter of what any of the other three teams would receive. That has been criticised as not being fair – and with good reason – though Osasuna are the outsiders. They were defeated 2-1 at home by Barcelona in the league in September, and lost 4-0 to Real Madrid and 2-0 at home against Atletico.

The winners face Real Madrid, who beat City rivals Atletico 5-3 after extra time on Wednesday, in Sunday's final. Barcelona are the holders and how they could do with another lift from this tournament, played a long way from home.

Updated: January 11, 2024, 7:35 AM