Barcelona host Benfica on Tuesday night, in what will be Xavi’s first Champions League fixture as a manager.
The Blaugrana legend got his hugely-anticipated reign off to a winning start on Saturday night, overcoming city rivals Espanyol 1-0.
The victory was their first in four La Liga outings, placing them sixth in the table. Xavi will be hoping for another positive result on Tuesday, in order to secure a place in the Champions League knockout stage with a game to spare.
In their way are a Benfica side who have already beaten the Catalan giants 3-0 this term. That was their only victory in European competition this campaign, however, having lost their previous two.
Here’s 90min’s preview of a weighted Champions League clash.
When is kick off? Wednesday November 24, 1:30 am (IST)
Where is it being played? Camp Nou, Barcelona
What TV channel/app is it on? Sony Ten, Sony Liv app
Who’s the referee? Sergei Karasev
Who’s on VAR? Massimiliano Irrati
Ansu Fati and Martin Braithwaite will remain sidelined for the visit of Benfica, while Ousmane Dembele remains a major doubt due to his hamstring issue.
17-year-old Ilias Akhomach and 19-year-old Abde Ezzalzouli – both of whom hugely impressed in Saturday’s win over Espanyol – are options for the front line, although a return to the lineup for Philippe Coutinho is a more likely option for this crunch clash.
Xavi will have to make do without Pedri once again on Tuesday, although he may have Sergino Dest back in the squad after the USMNT international resumed full training this week.
Sergio Aguero will miss Tuesday’s tie, having been absent since late October after being diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia. It is unsure whether the Argentine legend will announce his early retirement following Xavi’s denial of such claims, although his continued absence is a certainty for now.
Fortunately for the visitors, the international break allowed their vast injury woes to subside somewhat.
Jorge Jesus will still be without forward Rodrigo Pinho, although the likes of Rafa Silva, Darwin Nunez, Roman Yaremchuk and the potential return of Haris Seferovic provide strong options for the front line.
Joao Mario is back in training, although the freshness of his issue may mean a midfield berth for Pizzi is more likely. Meanwhile, central defender Lucas Verissimo remains out of contention, likely resulting in a start for 20-year-old Morato alongside the experience of Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi.
Barcelona: ter Stegen; Mingueza, Pique, Garcia, Alba; Puig, Busquets, de Jong; Coutinho, Depay, Gavi
Benfica: Vlachodimos; Otamendi, Morato, Vertonghen; Gliberto, Weigl, Pizzi, Grimaldo; Silva; Nunez, Yaremchuk
These two decorated clubs have met each other just eight times in their history, with the outcome being a fairly even match-up. Barcelona have registered three wins in the fixture, while Benfica have won twice (three draws).
The first meeting between the two sides came in the 1961 European Cup final, when Benfica came out 3-2 winners to secure the first of their two consecutive triumphs.
It would take just over 60 years and six more meetings for the Portuguese outfit to overcome the Catalans for a second time, earning that resounding 3-0 win last time out.
In scoring twice that night, Darwin Nunez became the all-time record goal scorer in the fixture – if you were wondering.
While that 3-0 defeat will still leave a bitter taste, Barcelona will pose a very different challenge to Benfica on Tuesday night.
From despondency and a lack of direction under Ronald Koeman, the fans now find themselves full of excitement and hope at the prospect of entering a new era under Xavi.
The former midfield maestro’s appointment has already transformed the atmosphere around the club and given glimpses of a return to the fundamental footballing values of Barcelona. And it will inevitably continue to inspire.
Although Benfica enter this tie in good form and represent tricky opponents on a huge night for both clubs, the momentum and collective spirit surrounding Camp Nou at present should see Barcelona pick up the second victory of the Xavi era.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-1 Benfica