Barcelona's Youth And Siege Mentality Have Usurped Real Madrid's Wily Veterans

Xavi has rallied the Blaugrana behind a common ideal
11:06, 20 Mar 2023

Barcelona sit on top of La Liga, 12 points clear of arch rivals Real Madrid with 26 games played. The title is theirs to lose. Should the Blaugrana see it through, it will be their first league championship since 2019. Beyond that, it will be the first time Barca have lifted their domestic championship without Lionel Messi since 1999. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

Of course to call it easy is to discount the intense effort of head coach Xavi and his young side. But their season has certainly been less brutally taxing than many predicted. Considering that financial freefall was supposed to render the team unable to register enough players to be competitive, the season has been far better than anyone could have predicted.


The legalities and moralities of the fact Barcelona could not only field a side, but that they could furnish it with superstars like Robert Lewandowski, Jules Kounde and Raphinha, are a source of debate. Club president Joan Laporta has pulled a number of “economic levers” that have essentially mortgaged the club’s future earnings against present day spending. 

This financial finesse has been enough to keep the lights on in the face of league sanctions. But what has happened on the pitch is a different matter. Xavi has crafted a side that mixes a young core with club veterans and a smattering of star signings. 

It isn’t quite the La Masia-dominated generation from the manager’s playing days, with young talent like Pedri and Ronald Araujo signed from Las Palmas and Boston River respectively. But these promising stars meshed with academy graduates like Gavi, lifers like Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto and the A-list likes of Lewandowski makes for a heady cocktail.

It was a potent enough mixture to intoxicate Real Madrid on Sunday evening. Carlo Ancelotti’s reigning Champions League holders took the lead at Camp Nou and would come within a whisker of taking a point. Marco Asensio’s disallowed goal could have been the winner, but will instead be endlessly debated. Meanwhile, Franck Kessie’s 92nd minute winner will be the foundation upon which his Barcelona legend is built.


So how have a team creaking under their own financial failings, and unceremoniously dumped out of the Europa League by Manchester United, leapfrogged the best team in Europe? Momentum seems to have a lot to do with it. 

Xavi has harnessed the siege mentality of being La Liga’s unwanted success story. Rival fans, both in Spain and in wider European football, have been rubbed the wrong way by the Catalan club. When other teams are battling for survival, why should the Blaugrana be able to spend with impunity despite having no money? Xavi has rallied his diverse side behind the single idea that they will succeed in spite of what people think of them. This central tenet, coupled with their elegant mix of youthful dynamism and veteran instincts, has been transformative.

Real meanwhile look like a team whose race is run, at least in a league setting. Los Blancos have always been more engaged by the European Cup than anything else. But last season, Ancelotti managed to focus his men on their twin aims, picking up La Liga and the Champions League along the way. But that success was built on veteran foundations. Karim Benzema was playing the best football of his career. Luka Modric was enjoying what felt like the fifth or sixth final flourish at the age of 37. Toni Kroos remained an enviable linchpin. There was some young talent emerging, with Federico Valverde making good on the promise he had shown. But the story was mainly about Ancelotti’s veteran names pulling off one last European heist.

They’re well fixed to do that again, with Chelsea to come in the quarter finals of that competition. But this ageing Madrid side was not able to sustain it over the course of a whole campaign. While Barcelona have united behind a common goal, Los Blancos look in need of a rebuild. The pieces of such a shift are falling into place. Aurelien Tchouameni was signed in the summer, Rodrygo continues to improve and Eduardo Camavinga looks a real talent. This wasn’t their year, but the future is bright at Bernabeu.

The present, at least in La Liga, belongs to Barcelona though. In the unlikeliest of circumstances, fiscally struggling and shorn of Messi, they look set to return to the top of the domestic pile. Madrid will come back stronger, there’s no doubt about that. But with Barca firing again, football’s defining rivalry is back in a big way.

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