LONDON: It all seemed too good to be true for Xavi and Barcelona.
Their summer spending spree was validated by La Liga and their new signings, including Robert Lewandowski, hit the ground running.
The overhaul sent them back to the top of La Liga for the first time since June 2020, and the “Xavineta” (Xavi truck, as his project is fondly known in Catalonia) picked up new passengers in droves, with Camp Nou attendances booming once more.
But the thorn in their side, their Champions League failure over the past seven campaigns, remains. And after last year’s humiliating group stage exit, Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat by Inter Milan puts Barcelona in a precarious position.
They welcome the Italians next week at Camp Nou, a match which they must win, with Bayern Munich leading Group ‘C’ on nine points, ahead of Inter on six, Barca on three and pointless Viktoria Plzen bottom.
After the lavish investment in Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde, among others, there are no excuses for failure — although Barca left San Siro with plenty of ammunition.
On Monday, Xavi insisted La Liga was a fairer competition than the Champions League, which comes down to a handful of crucial moments, tiny details, and was proven right quicker than he hoped.
Barca had a goal harshly ruled out for handball and were denied a penalty when Inter defender Denzel Dumfries handled in the area late on.
In a game of few clear-cut chances, these moments were decisive.
Hakan Calhanoglu lashed in the only goal of the game on the stroke of half-time to give Inter the win over Barca and sole possession of second place in the group dominated by Bayern.
“I’m mad because it wasn’t fair,” Xavi said. “We don’t understand anything. The referee needs to explain what happened publicly.”
Regardless, the points are on the board now and that converts the return at Camp Nou into a must-win game for Barcelona. Any other outcome would leave them likely needing to beat Bayern, a team they have lost against five times in a row, including the infamous 8-2 Lisbon battering in 2019-20.
Barcelona hoped with the remodelling of the squad their European ghosts from the past could be forgotten, but their visit to Milan shows that will not be as easy as it looked.
Bayern moved to the edge of qualification with a third successive win, thrashing Plzen 5-0.
With the home victory over Plzen, Bayern surpassed a 30-match unbeaten run set by Real Madrid in the group stage of the Champions League between 2012-17. Bayern, who got two goals from Leroy Sane, haven’t lost at home in Europe’s premier competition since a 3-2 defeat to Manchester City in 2013.
Sane opened the scoring from distance after seven minutes and adding a second five minutes after the break.
Between Sane’s two goals, Serge Gnabry added a second on 13 minutes before Sadio Mane posted his first Champions League goal for Bayern with number three after 21 minutes.
Substitute Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting came off the bench at half time and added the fifth just before the hour mark.
Napoli continue to impress
On a night when a minute’s silence was held before every match in tribute to the 131 victims of the Indonesia stadium tragedy, Napoli underlined their credentials with an impressive 6-1 thrashing of Ajax in Amsterdam.
Giacomo Raspadori netted twice as Napoli came from behind to deliver a masterclass to stay top of Group ‘A’ and to take their tally of goals to 13 from three matches.
Captain Giovanni di Lorenzo, Piotr Zielinski, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and substitute Giovanni Simeone added the other goals for the Serie leaders, after Mohammed Kudus had given the hosts the lead inside the opening 10 minutes.
Napoli, who might have scored more such was their dominance, have a 100% record at the halfway point, leaving Ajax with three points from their opening three games and in danger of missing out on next year’s knockout stages after their biggest defeat in European football.
“It was a difficult, painful evening for us. Not worthy of Ajax,” said the Dutch team’s coach, Alfred Schreuder.
Liverpool stayed close in the group by reaching six points after defeating Rangers 2-0 at home in the ‘Battle of Britain’ with goals by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah. It was Liverpool’s second consecutive European win after defeating Ajax and losing to Napoli in the group opener.
Belgium’s Club Brugge continued their shock run in Group ‘B’, running on the fumes of self-belief as they won for a third time to put themselves on the brink of the knockout stage.
Coach Carl Hoefkens hailed the focus and determination of his players after they added Atletico Madrid to their list of conquests after previously beating Bayer Leverkusen and FC Porto.
“There is an unbelievably great belief in this squad that we can do extreme things,” he said after Kamal Sowah and Ferran Jutgla scored in the 2-0 home win over the Spanish club.
Brugge have a six-point lead over the other three sides in the group after Porto beat Leverkusen 2-0 with second half goals from Zaidu and Galeno.
Sporting Lisbon’s march in Group ‘D’ came to a shuddering halt in Marseille where the home side came from a goal down to win 4-1 and get their first win under their belt.
Lisbon still top the group with six points, two ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt and Tottenham Hotspur who played out a goalless draw in Germany.
Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2022