Barcelona’s night of rejuvenation and regret as Xavi finds mixed responses on the wing
At the final whistle, on-field cameramen ran over to Ferran Torres for a close-up. The player of the match held his head high as he gazed at the stands and clapped back triumphantly.
A few meters away from him was Ansu Fati. The striker was slow to emerge from the bench, waiting for his team-mates to get up first before approaching them and taking his place on the Camp Nou pitch. Barcelona beat Cadiz 2-0 thanks to goals from Sergi Roberto and Robert Lewandowski.
Fati, who had started the game but was withdrawn late, was now moving slowly without looking up from the pitch and appeared to be shuffling his feet slightly with his head bowed. Xavi noticed him, changed course and patted him affectionately on the back. Some teammates also came up to him and hugged him.
“Strikers value themselves for goals, but we value Ansu for the way he has shown himself. He worked well and finished with cramps, which means he gave everything,” said Xavi in the post-match press conference. “The Gates will come.”
When Xavi came on for Fati in the 86th minute, the player threw his jacket to the ground and had to be calmed down by Sergio Busquets, just as Jordi Alba had done here with Raphinha days earlier.
Fati’s despair at missing an opportunity to show his best form collided with the gratification of having gotten back to winning ways that was visible on Torres’ face. Before the game, the feeling was clear: it was time for both players to show what they could do.
It was a situation created by Pedri’s and Ousmane Dembele’s injuries. Pedri’s absence in particular is a major structural setback for Xavi’s plans.
Pedri is one of the cornerstones of the system that Xavi has enabled the team’s success, playing him as one of four midfielders in a fluid 4-4-2 instead of the 4-3-3 traditionally associated with Barca’s style in is connected.
With the 20-year-old expected to be out until mid-March, Xavi decided on Sunday night it was time to return to a two-winger formation. Raphinha was benched, his form and fitness saved for Thursday’s Europa League second leg at Manchester United. So all eyes were on Torres and Fati.
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Unfortunately, Fati’s lack of confidence was plain to see – and his frustration only seemed to grow during an erratic performance that might have been dictated by a 13th-minute shot on target that saw him miss the ball. Xavi often encouraged him from the sidelines, but not much changed in Fati’s demeanor and character; he looked dejected and played without a trace of a smile on his face.
This was in stark contrast to Torres. Dribbling, fighting for the ball: he dared absolutely everything. On a carnival-heavy weekend in Spain, he came to the party in his best light. The same pressure to perform that weighed on him at times this season seemed to fuel him with energy and drive.
Torres attempted 10 dribbles and completed them all. He became the first player to reach such a total in La Liga this season and only the fourth Barca player since 2016-17, after Neymar, Lionel Messi and Dembele. On Sunday, at 11, he was the Barcelona player who made the most crosses. The second was Alejandro Balde at four.
His most revealing contribution led to Barca’s opening goal. He dribbled past an inside player, then an outside player and punched a third opponent before going in the middle. Lewandowski’s header was blocked but Roberto was there to follow up.
Most Barca players joined the midfielder. Gavi ran towards Roberto, thought, turned and hugged Torres, who celebrated the goal as if it were his too. Eric Garcia – also a starter against Cadiz – also ran towards him and was helped by Frenkie de Jong. Everyone was aware of how important it was for the Catalan winger.
The second goal fell within two minutes. Lewandowski scored again at the Camp Nou after six games in a row without doing so. The Pole was back and Torres was back. It couldn’t have come at a better time, days before one of the most important games of the season at Manchester United, after last Thursday night’s tumultuous first leg at the Camp Nou.
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Cadiz – 17th in La Liga and the competition’s third-worst scorer – may seem like easy opponents but since promotion to the top flight in 2020, Barcelona have only managed to beat them once in five games before Sunday. Indeed, with the Andalusians’ 1-0 win here last season, Barca bid farewell to any real hope of overtaking Real Madrid in the title race.
It was crucial that the Catalans maintained their eight-point lead over Carlo Ancelotti’s side. Their priority is La Liga, as they have said time and time again. They achieved that and Torres was key.
“I’m particularly happy for Ferran, he’s received a lot of criticism but he’s a player who always works for the team. People value him for goals or assists, we value other things,” said Xavi. “He’s humble and always shows his face.”
Torres said: “It’s difficult from the start to show everything you’ve got, there’s pressure in a few minutes. It makes me proud that the Camp Nou applauded me, now it’s time to keep working because the difficult thing is to keep going.”
In the case of Fati, his worst enemy is his 2020 version, when he stunned everyone with a sparkle that now, four knee surgeries later, appears to be missing.
Torres, meanwhile, was a slave to his price tag. Barca agreed to pay €55m (£48.8m; $58.8m) initially, which has since risen to €62m. He has been under enormous pressure to perform since day one.
He came with the support of Mateu Alemany, the club’s sporting director, who said during negotiations with Manchester City that Torres was “his boy” when he finalized the deal in last season’s winter transfer window.
Then came Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who eclipsed Torres’ signing with his immediate impact. The Catalan was criticized for his game and picked up a foot injury in July which saw him miss pre-season.
Since his return from the World Cup, it has been clear that Torres was not at his best and according to sources close to him, who prefer to remain anonymous to protect their positions, he reached a low point against Real Betis after the Spanish Supercopa semifinals. He seems to be a player whose performance is affected by pressure and when he doesn’t feel confident, that feeling reflects on the pitch.
That’s why his good game against Cadiz is so important to regain confidence and his best form. He made it clear that he is asking for a place in the starting XI for the game in Manchester, his former hometown.
The smile at the end of the game gave it away. He knows it inside: He’s back.
(Top photo: Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images)
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https://theathletic.com/4231283/2023/02/20/barcelona-cadiz-torres-fati/ Barcelona’s night of rejuvenation and regret as Xavi finds mixed responses on the wing