Barcelona’s victory over Elche extended the team’s unbeaten streak in La Liga to 11 games under Xavi, propelling the Catalan giants to third position in the table. Later in the day, Atletico Madrid’s victory over Real Betis meant that Xavi’s team remained there as well, level on points with the defending champions but with a game in hand. A top-four finish seemed improbable a few months ago, but it is now solidly in Barca’s hands, and second-placed Sevilla may be looking over their shoulders as well.
Julen Lopetegui’s side is still seven points ahead of Barcelona, but they have played one more game, and the two clubs will meet in La Liga at the Camp Nou in less than a month. Elche pounced on a Pedri error to open the scoring through Fidel Chaves shortly before half-time, and Barca had to come from behind to win all three points. Prior to the game, the hosts had not lost at home under Francisco and did cause Barcelona issues, especially down the right side, where Dani Alves was targeted. The 38-year-old Brazilian played well in the attacking third (creating two chances and completed 91 percent of his passes), but struggled to keep up with Elche's quick attacks.
Xavi eventually brought on Sergino Dest for the final few minutes, but you get the impression the in-form American should have come on sooner.
Dest will start against Galatasaray in the Europa League on Thursday and will have another opportunity to push his claim for additional minutes.
Alves appeared to have solidified his starting spot, but Dest’s development means there is now genuine rivalry for the right-back position, which can only be a good thing.
Ronald Araujo is another player that is thriving under Xavi. On the ball, the center-back is visibly improving and is now seeking to push forward from the back.
Araujo’s defensive abilities have never been questioned, but if he has a flaw, it is his inability or unwillingness to bring the ball out of defence. That appears to be something Xavi has been working on, and he spoke highly of the Uruguayan after the game.
“Perhaps Araujo is the player who has developed the most since I took over, particularly with the ball since he is willing to take risks.” He’s got the ball in his hands and he’s driving. “He was a free man today,” he said. “At times, he was the advanced midfielder.” He’s adjusted his style of play, which we expect, and is developing clout inside the team. He’s one of the finest in the world without the ball, but he needed to develop with it. It’s critical for him and the squad."
Meanwhile, speculation over Araujo’s future persists.
A new signing has been made. Ferran Torres was benched against Elche, but he came on at halftime for Gavi, who had had an unusually unproductive first half playing on the left flank, and helped turn the outcome.
Ferran’s equalizer wasn’t the most beautiful goal he’ll ever score, but it was crucial in ensuring Barca’s triumph. It was also the 22-year-first old’s goal in La Liga for Barcelona. Ferran was denied by a combination of bad finishing and a fantastic stop by Elche goalkeeper Edgar Badia. Torres can be aggravating in front of goal, but it’s not by chance that he’s finding himself in such good positions and creating so many chances.
Barca had to work hard for their win over Elche, and you could tell it was the kind of game they would have lost a few months ago, but they were also helped by their replacements.
Last weekend, Ousmane Dembele, Luuk de Jong, and Memphis Depay all came off the bench to secure a win against Athletic, and it was a similar tale this time around, with the goals coming from substitutes.
The Catalans had struggled against Francisco’s team, but they had the luxury of bringing on Ferran, Nico Gonzalez, Adama Traore, Memphis, and Dest in the second half.
We all know how important the January additions have been for Barcelona, but Xavi is now completely spoiled for options, especially in attack. Martin Braithwaite did not even make the squad, and Luuk de Jong, who had been in fine form, did not play a single minute.
Memphis did, and it served as a reminder that he is still useful. Last time out, the Dutchman scored on his recovery from injury, and he did so again here. For his 10th goal of the season, he skillfully executed his penalty to win the game for Barca.