Xavi insists injuries no excuse ahead of Barcelona clash with Napoli in Champions League

Spanish giants play host to Italians without several key players after drawing last-16 first leg 1-1 in Naples

Xavi Hernandez will be aiming to guide Barcelona to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in four years. EPA
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Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez has warned his squad that they cannot use their current injury list as an excuse for failure going into the Champions League last-16 second leg against Naples on Tuesday.

The two sides drew 1-1 at Stadio Diego Armando Maradona in February which saw Robert Lewandowski put Barca into a second-half lead only for Victor Osimhen to salvage a draw for Napoli 15 minutes from time, in what was Francesco Calzona's first game in charge of the Serie A side.

Barcelona are aiming to reach the quarter-finals of the competition they last won in 2015 but will be without three key midfielders in Pedri, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong, as well as attacker Ferran Torres and left-back Alejandro Balde.

The Catalonians defeated Mallorca 1-0 in La Liga on Friday thanks to a sensational goal from 16-year-old Lamine Yamal and are third in the table, one point behind Girona and eight shy of leaders Real Madrid.

And Xavi believes his squad must forget about the missing players and concentrate on reaching the quarter-finals while urging his teenage stars Pau Cubarsi and Yamal to seize the opportunity and demanding a “magic night” at the club's temporary Olympic Stadium.

“It's the moment to be able to reach the quarter-finals, for four years we haven't got to the last eight of the Champions League, I see it as an opportunity,” said the coach ahead of taking on the reigning Italian champions who are seventh in the standings and 31 points adrift of leaders Inter Milan.

“It's true that we have players out, but it's not an excuse. It's an opportunity. To Lamine and Cubarsi, the same, that they enjoy it, that at 16 and 17 years old it is spectacular that they can be there, it is an opportunity to be among the eight best in Europe, that they compete.

“With Barcelona united, with the stadium full, we have to live a magic night. The players have to feel the support of the fans.”

Despite leading Barcelona to the Spanish title last season, Barca are off the pace in third in La Liga, out of the Copa del Rey and were thrashed by Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

And in January, Xavi announced he would be leaving at the end of the season, saying Barca needed “a change of dynamic” and that he had been worn down by the pressured of leading one of the world's biggest clubs.

And now the Champions League is Xavi's best chance of ending his reign on a high. “I am not the important thing here, the club is the important thing – I have an expiry date,” he insisted.

“It’s a day of being united and I’m going to tell the players not to be afraid, that we have to take a step forward to be in the quarter-finals after four years without.”

After the match last week, Mallorca coach Javier Aguirre gave Yamal, who became the youngest player ever to feature in the Champions League knockout stage when he started in Naples, the ultimate of compliments when he compared him to Barcelona's greatest player, Lionel Messi.

“I saw Messi 21 years ago, when he was a youth,” said the Mexican coach. “They told me to go see him and I had enough in five minutes. He was as fast as a rat. And Lamine is similar. If he continues like this he is going to give many joys to Barcelona.”

With veteran striker Lewandowski playing inconsistently and winger Ousmane Dembele departing for Paris Saint-Germain last summer, Yamal has become a vital source of goals and inspiration for Barcelona.

The forward has netted six goals and provided seven assists in 37 appearances across all competitions this season, many as a substitute.

In recent weeks he has become an essential component for Xavi, starting in nine of his last 10 appearances.

Yamal hit a brace to rescue Barcelona a 3-3 draw against Granada in La Liga in February, coincidentally against the same side he netted in October to become the division's youngest ever goalscorer.

Xavi, though, has been quick to shut down the Messi description. “Comparisons don't help him, because he is totally different, anyone who has been compared with Messi comes out losing,” he said.

“There are moments in which he has flashes of Messi, because he's left footed playing on the right and comes inside, but the comparison with the best player in history is not good, because he will lose.”

Updated: March 11, 2024, 4:49 PM