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Friday, June 21, 2024

Barcelona pass another nervy test in Spanish Cup – as Xavi breathes a sigh of relief

Barcelona arrived to a lively atmosphere in Salamanca. The entire city — best known for its prestigious and beautiful university (and the student parties) — seemed to be out in the streets in eager expectation of an upset.

Thursday night’s Copa del Rey last-16 tie put home side Unionistas de Salamanca — a third tier team — up against Xavi’s Barca, whose mood was far from festive following Sunday’s 4-1 defeat by Real Madrid in the Supercopa de Espana final.

Unionistas had already beaten La Liga opposition Villarreal in the previous round. Barca had come through a slightly nervy meeting with fourth-tier UD Barbastro, and this trip would provide another test of their attitude and resolve, at a time of badly damaged morale.

The Estadio Municipal Reina Sofia was absolutely overflowing with support. Fans were queuing up outside the ground hours before kick-off and the 6,000 tickets had sold out very quickly.

“They put them on sale for members and those of us who weren’t members couldn’t even get to buy them,” lamented one woman at one of the stadium entrances. She had decided to go with her 10-year-old son anyway, to catch a glimpse of the Barca stars.

“Can you imagine a photo with Robert Lewandowski?” the boy said, before revealing that he is actually a Real Madrid fan.

Inside the ground, no seat was free and there were even people sitting on the stairs or standing on the railings that separated the small stands from the pitch. The fans were not going to make it easy for Barca, pushing the team even in the warm-up.

The stands were very close to the pitch, so what supporters were saying was perfectly audible to the players and the coaching staff. It was certainly not an easy atmosphere for Barca to show that they had turned the page on what happened in Riyadh.

Things got harder before they got easier. In the 31st minute, Alvaro Gomez Martin put the home side ahead with a thumping volley that sent the crowds wild. Xavi looked down to the ground with his hands in his pockets and a serious look on his face. How bad was it going to get?

As has become a habit this season, Barca would have to come from behind. During the first half, the team looked very weak in what they excelled at last year: defending the box. In attack there was little dribbling, little attacking threat, few ideas and a lot of turnovers.

But just before the half-time whistle, a Barca counter-attack from a Salamanca corner sent Ferran Torres free on goal. In celebrating his low finish, he put his hands to his ear as he gestured to the stands — something that came as a surprise given the gulf separating the two sides.

Normally in the Copa del Rey, the lesser teams usually complain that the big stars never play in these games. This was not the case this time.

Shortly after half-time, Lewandowski, Pedri and Ilkay Gundogan all came on. Xavi needed his full arsenal and when they entered the pitch, the home fans took pleasure in pointing it out. “Look how they’re getting scared,” they chanted.

Barca’s ball circulation and composure improved, and when Jules Kounde scored a rasping drive from outside the box — a resource rarely used by Barca this season — team-mates quickly embraced him in celebration. Xavi, in the technical area, was beginning to breathe easier.

Balde’s emphatic finish provided Barca’s third on the night (Cesar Manso/AFP via Getty Images)

Alejandro Balde’s third followed soon after and the young left-back’s reaction also spoke of a release of pressure, not just on him but the collective. Barca were now in full control and no longer playing anxiously — although Inaki Pena was required to pull off a brilliant double save at the death. Barca celebrated that, too.

Beyond the victory, several players came out of the game stronger — from a match where defeat would truly have been disastrous. One was Oriol Romeu, a player who perhaps most of all embodies Barca’s low confidence, having been very erratic in recent games and lost his starting place. On Thursday he was very good, and looked a picture of calm and control despite the hostile environment.

But perhaps the best news was around the performance of 16-year-old centre-back Pau Cubarsi, who came on for his senior debut, and the 18-year-old centre-forward Marc Guiu.

Cubarsi, who replaced Andreas Christensen at half-time, looked very solid, not at all nervous and with a high command of the situation. His display carried many details of what Barca look for in a central defender — a position that has not often been covered by academy graduates like him. He found passes inside with great ease.

Guiu was a starter. Before the Salamanca match, he had played 44 minutes for the first team this season and scored two goals. He did not score before being replaced by Lewandowski but was one of Barca’s most daring players, not hesitating to take on shots that were not easy.

Both were at times more confident than some of Xavi’s seniors, perhaps because they are out of the dynamic that has undermined the morale of their more experienced team-mates.

They helped Barca pass what turned out to be turbulent test. And even though they were fully expected to win, the manner of victory saw the group finish the game more united than before, with a few promising bright spots.

(Top photo: Angel Martinez/Getty Images)

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