El Clasico: Barcelona face Real Madrid knowing their season is in danger of unravelling

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Barcelona are sitting pretty at the top of La Liga, holding a seven-point lead over Real Madrid after just two league defeats, and have already claimed the first silverware of the season by convincingly beating their arch-rivals 3-1 in January’s Super Cup. But they have also been eliminated from Europe – twice – and hit a bad run of form, with their attacking problems starkly shown by Sunday’s turgid 1-0 loss at lowly Almeria.

Heading into Thursday’s Copa del Rey semi-final first leg against Real at the Bernabeu, those contradictions neatly summarise Barca’s current state: plenty of promise, but worrying signs that everything could quickly unravel. Similarly, the delicate balance between positives and negatives reflects the work of manager Xavi, who is being forced to make tactical compromises to satisfy short-term demands for success. Xavi, without doubt, has made Barca better since he was appointed in November 2021. He inherited a mess, with a lack of direction on the field and the aftermath of a financial disaster behind the scenes.

Memories of embarrassing European defeats were particularly acute: the infamous collapse at Liverpool in 2019; a humiliating 8-2 thrashing against Bayern Munich the following year; a 4-1 home loss to Paris St-Germain in 2021. When Xavi took over, it felt like Barca were a very long way from being able to challenge the best. Now, though, the picture has changed. Although Xavi has failed to embark upon an extended European journey, at least they competed. Barca were unlucky to suffer elimination from a tough Champions League group alongside Bayern and Inter Milan, and pushed Manchester United hard in the Europa League play-off.

In La Liga, a commanding run of 12 wins in 13 games has provided a strong platform for the club to claim their first league title in four years, mainly thanks to a greatly improved defence with just eight goals conceded in the opening 23 games.

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