Barcelona v Benfica: How Xavi will look to halt the decline of the Spanish giants

Xavi played 767 games and won 25 trophies with Barca in his 17 years in the first team

Discipline. Rules. Order. Sacrifice.

These are probably not the words you would expect to hear repeatedly emphasised by new Barcelona coach Xavi upon his return to his former playing club with the aim of restoring lost glories.

As one of the greatest creative ball-playing midfielders the world has seen, you might think Xavi would arrive with heady promises of free-flowing, exciting, attacking football.

Instead, since replacing Ronald Koeman earlier this month he has been literally laying down the law by implementing a series of strict off-the-pitch rules, covering everything from everyday training ground routines to meal times and media appearances.

The intention, of course, is that these demanding habits will lead to a similar sharpening of focus on the pitch. Before Tuesday’s must-win Champions League meeting with Benfica, it’s only necessary to look back at the first group-stage game between the teams to understand why Xavi believes his strict measures are necessary.

The Portuguese team won September’s meeting in Lisbon easily, scoring with their first shot on target – something Barca’s opponents have done on eight occasions this season – and proceeding to wrap up a 3-0 victory with little trouble as Barca mustered just one effort on goal and looked vulnerable to every Benfica attack.

The most worrying thing about that capitulation is that it was neither new nor surprising. It was merely the latest in a long line of heavy defeats suffered by Barca since 2017 in the Champions League: 0-4 and 1-4 against PSG; 0-3 against Juventus twice; 0-3 against Roma; 0-4 against Liverpool; 2-8 and 0-3 against Bayern Munich.

For far too long they have been too easy to play against, routinely unable to find a compact shape and leaving big holes in the middle of the field for well-organised opponents to comfortably exploit.

It is no small task that lies ahead, even for a club legend who won 25 trophies in his 17 years as a player at the Nou Camp. Barcelona are currently sixth in La Liga, haven’t won a European title since 2015, are in a battle for qualification for the Champions League knockout…

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