Barcelona’s Supercopa de Espana win was Xavi’s first trophy as manager at Camp Nou but it also held special significance for Andreas Christensen.
After a tricky start at Barca following a bitter exit from Chelsea, the centre-back has finally found his place in the team — and backed that up with a first piece of silverware at his new club.
Christensen started alongside Jules Kounde in the centre of defence, with Ronald Araujo pushed to the right to cope with the threat of Vinicius Junior. The plan worked as Barca ran out 3-1 winners — Vinicius Jr was virtually anonymous and Real were restricted to a late Karim Benzema consolation goal.
The Denmark international played a key role in Barca’s win. He had a 75 per cent duel success rate and lost possession just twice, the fewest times of any starter. Christensen also recorded a pass completion rate of 98 per cent, with 62 of his 63 passes reaching their intended target, along with a 96 per cent success rate in Real’s half.
It was the latest game in which Christensen has impressed. Perhaps his best performance for Barcelona came in a 1-0 win away to Atletico Madrid just over a week ago that took Xavi’s team three points clear at the top of La Liga.
That is shown by the stats. Christensen was the Barcelona player with the most passes completed in that game, according to FBref, with 86 (of 90 attempts), ahead of Kounde with 67 and Araujo with 62. He also had the second-most touches from either team (100), just two behind Kounde.
He was just as effective in defence, working well with centre-back partner Araujo — Christensen was the Barcelona player with the second-most balls recovered (nine), one fewer than Pedri.
On the same day, Christensen’s previous club Chelsea got thrashed 4-0 by Manchester City in the FA Cup.
Since losing the centre-back pairing of Christensen and Antonio Rudiger on free transfers to Barcelona and Real Madrid after their contracts expired last summer, Chelsea have spent a lot of money attempting to strengthen their back line without fully succeeding.
Kalidou Koulibaly and Wesley Fofana arrived from Napoli and Leicester City, the latter for £70million ($85.4m), but both have struggled.
Fofana has suffered injury problems. He limped off with a sprained knee ligament against AC Milan in early October and missed out on a potential place in France’s World Cup squad as a result. Once recovered, he re-injured his knee in a friendly against Premier League neighbours Brentford during the break in the club season for the tournament in Qatar. He is not expected to return until later this month.
Christensen experienced a disappointing end to his Chelsea career.
As The Athletic reported last May he was on the verge of renewing his deal in August 2021 after helping them win the Champions League. There was confidence he would sign a five-year, £140,000-a-week contract, but a misunderstanding between club and player meant that didn’t happen.
According to a source close to Christensen, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect their position, the Dane was happy living in London, having originally signed for Chelsea in 2012 at age 16, but began to receive signals from the club that he didn’t like.
During that time, Barcelona coach Xavi spoke twice with Christensen via video call to try to convince him to move to the Catalan club. Christensen also felt there were times when there had been doubts over his ability and that, having arrived at Chelsea at a young age, he was destined to always be seen as an academy player.
Christensen, 26, did not question his talent but felt as if some at the club did not trust his ability to handle high-pressure situations and elite football. With Barcelona interested and Xavi’s calls making clear how much he was wanted at Camp Nou, the defender made up his mind.
He decided the time was right, given Barcelona’s project and Xavi’s style of football.
Christensen felt he would be given more importance at Camp Nou and would play more than he had for Chelsea — although that was not the case in his first few weeks in Catalonia.
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This was partly because Xavi regularly experimented with his line-up in the first half of the season.
He tried Christensen in a back four against Rayo Vallecano in their first La Liga game — a goalless home draw in which the defender was replaced by Sergi Roberto in the 60th minute.
Xavi then didn’t play the centre-back at all in two of the next three matches, before he made his Champions League debut for his new club by starting in a 5-1 win over Czech outsiders Viktoria Plzen on September 7. He was rested the following weekend against Cadiz before starting away to Bayern Munich three days later, where he was replaced in the 70th minute by Eric Garcia as Barcelona lost 2-0.
Christensen was impressing, despite Xavi frequently rotating the Barcelona line-up given his large squad.
In late September, fellow centre-back Araujo suffered a thigh injury, which led to him undergoing surgery. Then Christensen joined him in the treatment room, spraining a ligament in his left ankle in the 1-0 Champions League loss against Inter Milan at San Siro in early October. He returned a week before the World Cup break began, coming on for the final few minutes in place of Gerard Pique in a 2-0 home win over Almeria.
He played every minute of Denmark’s surprisingly poor World Cup campaign — European Championship semi-finalists 16 months earlier, they went out at the group stage with a single point from their three matches — and scored an equaliser in their 2-1 loss to France, and has returned to club football in impressive form, producing a solid performance in the city derby against Espanyol on New Year’s Eve before his defensive masterclass against Atletico and another assured showing on Sunday.
The numbers suggest Christensen should firmly establish himself as a first-choice centre-back alongside Araujo. He has won his battle with Garcia and also seems to have displaced fellow summer signing Kounde, who has often played out at right-back this season.
After the manner of his departure from his old club and suggestions in the Spanish press that Real Madrid had signed the better Chelsea centre-back, Christensen seems to be back to his best.
The contrast with Rudiger on Sunday could not have been starker — while Christensen impressed at the heart of Barcelona’s defence, his former Chelsea team-mate suffered a blow to the head and then produced a misplaced pass in the build-up to his side conceding their first goal. The Germany centre-back was caught out of position and Robert Lewandowski could play Gavi through on goal with ease.
Most importantly from Barcelona’s point of view, they finally seem to have a solid defensive platform on which to build. Christensen will hope the Supercopa is just the first of many trophies with Barca.
Other writers: Pol Ballús and Simon Johnson
(Top photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)
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