Ansu Fati can follow Marcus Rashford's example and turn a promising start into a flourishing career, according to Barcelona head coach Xavi.

Teenage Barcelona forward Fati has had a stop-start beginning to his time in the spotlight, with injuries and a dip in form seeing him struggle to establish himself as a starter.

He has featured in 47 first-team games for Barcelona over last season and the current campaign but has started just 13 times, netting 12 goals and adding three assists.

This season he has six goals in 32 appearances, having managed the same number in 15 games during the 2021-22 campaign, and his shot conversion rate has plummeted from 24 per cent last term to just 9.38 per cent this time around.

Fati turned 20 in November and Barcelona see the Spain international playing a big part in their future, although they might like to see the return of the 2019-20 Fati, who hit eight goals as a teenage sensation.

In every season except this one, Fati has exceeded his expected goals (xG) tally, which assesses the quality of chances and the likelihood of a player scoring. This term his xG total stands at 7.87.

 

Asked whether Fati might become Barcelona's equivalent to Manchester United's Rashford, Xavi said on Saturday: "He has the potential to be. It is clear we have a lot of hope in him.

"We will give him confidence. Performance will mark his development. He will be important. He is being and will be."

Rashford was a teenage star whose game briefly went off the boil after a fast start. He featured in 53 games in the 2016-17 campaign as United won the EFL Cup and Europa League, their last major trophies, and Rashford hit 22 goals in the 2019-20 season followed by 21 in the next campaign, before managing just five in the 2021-22 season.

This season has seen 25-year-old Rashford back to his best, matching his best season haul of 22 goals by netting against Barcelona on Thursday in a 2-2 Europa League draw.

 

LaLiga leaders Barcelona host Cadiz on Sunday, wary they lost 1-0 in this fixture last year.

Barcelona are unbeaten in their last 12 LaLiga games (W11 D1), and victory over Cadiz would see them bring up a seventh consecutive win in the competition, matching their best run under Xavi, twice achieving seven-game runs previously.

Striker Robert Lewandowski scored and had two assists when Barcelona won 4-0 at Cadiz in September, the only time he has been involved in three goals in a single LaLiga game.

Xavi has urged Barcelona to make the most of having one of Europe's deadliest strikers as the spearhead to their attack.

With just one goal from his last five games, this is a lean patch for Lewandowski who has had 19 shots across those fixtures.

Xavi said: "He was extraordinary and now he's lower, but it's not bad. I'm happy with him because of how he works and moves. Maybe we have to use him more. He's a top player who makes a difference.

"He's always a danger. He links well and gives assists. You have to play more with him."

Barcelona will make changes with next week's second leg of their Europa League play-off against Rashford's United in mind, and midfielder Pedri misses out with a hamstring problem.

Barcelona head coach Xavi feels his side were denied a "very clear" penalty late on in their action-packed 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

The sides played out a thriller at Camp Nou on Thursday to leave their Europa League knockout play-off round tie in the balance heading into next week's return leg.

Marcos Alonso opened the scoring for Barca early in the second half, but United were in front nine minutes later through a Marcus Rashford strike and Jules Kounde's own goal.

Raphinha equalised for the hosts in rather fortuitous circumstances in the 76th minute, the winger's cross going right through without a touch, and Barca went all out for a winner.

A scramble in the box culminated in Casemiro hitting his own post, before Ansu Fati was brilliantly denied by David de Gea – the United keeper's sixth save of the game.

Amid the end-to-end drama in the closing stages, Xavi is adamant his side should have been awarded a spot-kick for a shot that struck Fred on the arm.

"For me, the penalty is very clear," he told Movistar+. "I went over to tell the referee that at the end. It was clear. That's my opinion and I know that won't change anything.

"The referee said the ball was too close to [Fred's] body, but for me it's not. It's a clear penalty."

Barcelona finished the game with an expected goals (xG) return of 1.26 compared to 2.13 for their opponents, suggesting the Red Devils did more to win the contest.

Raphinha's goal ultimately salvaged a draw for the LaLiga leaders, with the former Leeds United player having now been involved in five goals in his four games against United. 

He also played in the corner for Alonso's opener, meaning he has scored and assisted in the same game four times this term – the most of any LaLiga player in all competitions.

The Brazil international reacted angrily to being substituted for Ferran Torres soon after scoring, but head coach Xavi says that is entirely understandable. 

"I have to do it for the good of the team," Xavi said. "I perfectly understand the anger shown by players. I was also angry.

"He has come to apologise to me, but he didn't have to. We wanted to find a way to win the game and we almost did at the end."

Barcelona are now unbeaten in their past 16 matches, but one big negative for the Catalan giants was losing influential midfielder Pedri to a first-half injury.

The 20-year-old sustained muscle discomfort in the quadriceps of his right leg, which initial reports suggest will rule him out for up to a month – and thus next week's second leg.

Asked for an update on Pedri's injury, Xavi simply said: "He noticed some discomfort in the quadriceps. We'll have to see."

Gavi will also miss the return fixture at Old Trafford next Thursday after picking up a yellow card in the second half.

Despite the initial air of frustration, Xavi was happy with his side's performance against a United side that have now lost just once in 16 games since the World Cup break.

"It was a very even match. We played well against a great team," Xavi said. "We had to work hard. We had the feeling we could have scored a winning goal.

"Old Trafford will now decide it. We go to Manchester with the aim to advance."

Xavi warned Barcelona they must deal with "one of the most dangerous players in Europe" in Marcus Rashford when they host Manchester United on Thursday.

The two European heavyweights will face off in the Europa League at Camp Nou in the first leg as the pair bid for a place in the last 16.

Runaway LaLiga leaders Barca have been in fine form, winning 11 straight games in all competitions since the start of 2023 ahead of the high-profile clash in UEFA's secondary club competition.

But the Blaugrana will have to deal with the in-form Rashford, who has scored 13 times in 15 games since the World Cup, and Xavi acknowledged the danger the England international will pose.

"In the transition he is very, very dangerous, so we need to take care of all of them but especially Rashford," the Barca coach said on Wednesday at his pre-match press conference.

"He's one of the most dangerous players now in Europe."

While Barca will be tasked with coping against the resurgent Rashford, United will get a taste of what could have had when they face Frenkie de Jong.

Erik ten Hag's side tried and failed to sign the Netherlands international in the transfer window ahead of the 2022-23 season, with the Dutchman subsequently emerging as a key cog in Xavi's midfield.

"Frenkie is an incredible player and for every club in the whole world he will strengthen the squad because he has a unique quality," said Ten Hag, who managed De Jong during his time as Ajax coach.

"If you can get him in the squad your team will be stronger. In Spain, he became even better.

"He's a fantastic player, plays out from the back, he always has time and it was a pleasure to work with him."

Xavi never doubted Frenkie de Jong's commitment to Barcelona amid speculation linking the midfielder with a move to Manchester United last year.

United identified De Jong, who came through at Ajax under Erik ten Hag, as a priority target ahead of their new manager's first season in charge.

A move never materialised, with United instead buying Casemiro from Real Madrid.

Casemiro has gone on to solidify himself as one of the most impressive midfielders in the Premier League, but ahead of Thursday's Europa League encounter between United and Barca, Xavi said De Jong never wanted to leave the Blaugrana.

"I think he was really clear to me: he wanted to stay with us. So there was no doubt," Xavi said at a press conference.

"Now he's our player, I’m really happy and satisfied with his performances, his leadership. He's in a very good moment, like all the team.

"I think Frenkie is enjoying on the pitch and this is the most important thing."

De Jong has played 26 games for Barca this season, starting 20 and scoring twice.

Xavi's version of events tallies with reports from the time that suggested Barca were attempting to push the midfielder towards a transfer, rather than the other way around, in order to ease their financial issues.

Thursday's encounter with United at Camp Nou has been overshadowed by allegations of Barca having paid €1.4million to a company part-owned by former LaLiga referee Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira between 2016 and 2018.

Barca president Joan Laporta vowed to "defend the honour and interests of Barcelona", saying it was "no coincidence" the allegations had come out with the Blaugrana sitting 11 points clear of Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga.

Xavi urged his Barcelona side to show they can compete against an elite European side when they face Manchester United in a "spectacular" tie on Thursday.

Barca and United will do battle at Camp Nou in the first leg of a blockbuster Europa League play-off, with the return fixture to come at Old Trafford a week later.

Xavi's side are unbeaten in 16 games since they were consigned to a 3-0 Champions League defeat at home to Bayern Munich on October and they have reeled off 11 consecutive victories.

The Red Devils have also been resurgent under Erik ten Hag, losing only one of their past 15 matches and sitting third in the Premier League table.

Barca failed to make it out of their Champions League group, but head coach Xavi is relishing the opportunity to show the strides they have made as they go in search of a place in the Europa League round of 16. 

He said: "Tomorrow is a great match. It's a spectacular tie. Both teams arrived at the best moment of the season. Ten Hag has changed the face of the team. It's been hard for them, but they're doing a great job.

"I expect a game with a lot of intensity and rhythm. It's Europe and we want to show that we can compete against a top-level European rival."

Xavi does not believe the Blaugrana are favourites to advance.

The former Spain international said: "A lot will be decided at Old Trafford. I see two very close matches. The pity is that we won't play the second leg at home.

"I don't think we are favourites. There are very good teams in this competition, it's a very tough competition."

Xavi added: "United is a great club. They are not in the best moment in their history, but there are players who are in a great moment. In recent weeks they have been good and it will be very hard to win the game.

"We want to show that we are at a high level and that we all work hard and are aggressive. Tomorrow is an important test to compete in Europe."

It's a clash befitting a Champions League final, yet Barcelona and Manchester United will tussle twice over the next nine days just for the right to play in the last 16 of the Europa League.

A result of United's dreadful 2021-22 season and Barca's surprising failure to get out of their Champions League group means two giants of the European game find themselves in UEFA's second-tier competition.

While that might suggest a hint of both being fallen giants, these two teams are enjoying largely promising seasons, with Thursday's first leg at Camp Nou undeniably intriguing.

Barca are on course to win LaLiga for the first time since 2019, while United have made significant strides forward following the beginning of a rebuild with new manager Erik ten Hag. A Premier League title challenge could yet come to fruition.

But the Europa League is where their attention turns now, and United's bid to reclaim the title they won in 2017 – the last trophy they lifted, in fact – has them facing arguably the toughest possible challenge straight away.

The absence of Lisandro Martinez for the first leg due to suspension will be a huge source of frustration for Ten Hag, which highlights just how effective the Argentinian has been in his first few months at the club.

United prepare to suffer

Xavi's spell in charge of Barcelona to this point has been a little difficult to draw conclusions from. That's not just what critics think; there are also many, many supporters who remain uncertain.

They routinely win games without playing particularly spectacular football, and that's essentially the crux of both sides of the debate. Some fans may not be enamoured with the brand of football, but Xavi is getting results.

Since the start of the first LaLiga matchday with Xavi at the helm, Barcelona have amassed 112 points in 47 games – Real Madrid, who've played a match less, have taken 104. That's the same Real Madrid who won a league and Champions League double last year.

Now, he has Barca well on track to win the title this season. Even if they perhaps don't have the same entertainment value as Pep Guardiola's vintage Barcelona, Xavi deserves recognition for the transformation he's overseen, part of which is shown in their work rate.

They are tireless.

Former Barca coach Quique Setien, now at Villarreal, highlighted this after his team were beaten 1-0 by them at the weekend.

"There is something that this Barca has changed a lot, which is without the ball," he said. "The data is there: Barca is the team that runs the most without the ball. Seems surprising, doesn't it? Robert Lewandowski is the first defender."

How does this translate into output? Well, their 210 high turnovers is second only to Athletic Bilbao (223) in LaLiga, while Athletic and Atletico Madrid (35 each) are the only two teams to convert such situations into shooting opportunities more often than Barca (32).

Barca's 324 pressed sequences is bettered by just Athletic (330) and Rayo Vallecano (328), though Xavi's side allow their opposition on average only 8.8 passes before a defensive action. This is a low for LaLiga.

Altogether, these metrics highlight just how hard Barca work to get the ball back when they don't have it, and as such it brings into focus the kind of defensive pressure their opponents' centre-backs are put under.

The centre-back playmaker

That is, of course, where Martinez becomes relevant. Obviously his presence would likely be felt even if Barca didn't press with such intensity, as he's arguably been United's most consistent and impressive defender this season purely from a 'putting-your-body-on-the-line-and-battling-for-the-cause' perspective.

Yet, it's his ability on the ball that makes him key for Ten Hag.

Martinez's importance to United in this respect was as evident as ever during the weekend win at Leeds United. Until his 61st-minute introduction, Ten Hag's men had struggled desperately with their hosts' intensity.

Leeds were ferocious in their pressing, and although left-back Luke Shaw generally did fine in Martinez's place at centre-back, United instantly looked like they had more time on the ball once those two were in their rightful positions.

Martinez was dropping his shoulder to evade attackers, pinging long cross-field passes out to the right. Granted, you could make the case Leeds were tiring, and that's potentially a valid argument, but Martinez's performance wasn't surprising. It's just how he's played ever since making the move from Ajax.

Although he only came on with 29 minutes left, Martinez's 35 passes was only bettered by five of his team-mates and no one on the pitch (minimum three passes) had a better completion rate (85.7 per cent).

His ability on the ball makes Martinez effective at helping United resist pressure. He has lost possession 173 times in the Premier League this season, but that is just 12.3 per cent of his total touches. Only 11 centre-backs (minimum 15 appearances) have lost the ball less frequently.

This is despite his passing being positive and forward-thinking in nature, which is evidenced by the fact only Arsenal's William Saliba (22) has initiated more shot-ending sequences than Martinez (16) in the Premier League this term.

United now go into arguably their biggest game of the season – until next week's EFL Cup final – without him, a match where his strengths will have possibly been more useful than any previous fixture.

But if there's one positive, the need to highlight his importance makes a mockery of those who rushed to write Martinez off at the start of the season.

Xavi is adamant there is still more to come from Barcelona after his side battled to a 1-0 win at Villarreal to open up an 11-point lead at the LaLiga summit.

Barcelona continued their perfect record this calendar year with an 11th victory in a row thanks to Pedri's first-half strike at El Madrigal.

The Catalan giants struggled to kill off the contest, with Robert Lewandowski having three attempts saved by Pepe Reina, and that almost came back to haunt them late on.

Samuel Chukwueze found a way past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but the goal was quickly ruled out for offside as Barca kept a fifth clean sheet in six league games.

Despite now having a double-figures points advantage on Madrid, who play their game in hand at Elche on Wednesday, Xavi is not ruling Los Blancos out of the title race.

"There are many points left to play for," he told Movistar+. "The run of form we are on is extraordinary, but we can still improve certain things.

"Villarreal wanted to have possession today, and they squeezed us. We missed a lot of final passes and, by doing so, we have ended up suffering."

 

Barcelona have recorded seven wins by a 1-0 scoreline in 21 LaLiga games this season, equalling their highest total in a full season in the history of the competition.

They have conceded just seven LaLiga goals all campaign, which is six fewer than any other team across Europe's top five leagues.

"The defensive side of things isn't our main weapon, but it is bringing us results," Xavi said. "The defence starts from Robert [Lewandowski], which is very noticeable.

"We leave here having given no big chances to Villarreal and we leave very happy."

Pedri's goal in the 18th minute was his sixth of the season in the league, with four of those coming in 1-0 victories for Barca.

Indeed, no player has won more points for his team in LaLiga with goals this season than Pedri (10 points, level with Real Betis striker Borja Iglesias).

The Spain international was played through on goal following a quick one-two with Lewandowski, but only after Barcelona turned possession over in midfield.

"The game was like that. We either stole the ball off them or they stole it off us," Xavi added. "It's about taking advantage. I think today's victory came from that aspect."

Barca host Cadiz in their next league match, but first is a Europa League knockout play-off round first leg against Manchester United on Thursday.

Xavi retains "blind confidence" in Ansu Fati and is baffled by talk of the Barcelona forward's future being uncertain.

Fati has made 20 appearances for Barca in LaLiga this season, but 13 of those have come from the bench with two of Raphinha, Ousmane Dembele and Gavi usually preferred out wide of star striker Robert Lewandowski.

Reports this week credited Premier League trio Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal with an interest in Fati, who has scored three league goals and provided three assists in his limited playing time this term.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's trip to Villarreal, Xavi said Spain international Fati can make a big impact now and in the future, questioning why rumours about his future were rife outside the transfer window.

"We expect a lot from him, I have blind confidence in him," Xavi said of the 20-year-old. "I have it with everyone. We have been shaping the squad based on what I wanted. 

"I have confidence with everyone and especially with Ansu. He is a player for the present and for the future. He has to have patience and give everything when he comes in, which he is doing.

"At this moment there is no one transferable. The market has finished, I don't know what we are doing talking about sales, we are playing the season. 

"We are talking about the sale of Ansu, who was not talked about all month in January. I don't understand it and even less in the Barcelona environment. I have a lot of hope for him."

Fati will hope to get a chance to impress at the Estadio de la Ceramica – he has scored four goals in five league appearances against Villarreal, more than against any other opponent. 

Barcelona must juggle two competitions in the coming weeks, with the first leg of a mouthwatering Europa League tie against United coming four days after their meeting with Villarreal.

Xavi, however, is taking things game by game, saying: "There is no priority, we want to win the titles for which we compete. The most important game is always the next one."

Barca are likely to be without captain Sergio Busquets for at least two weeks after the 34-year-old suffered a sprained ankle in last week's 3-0 win over Sevilla.

The Blaugrana great is yet to pen a new contract amid suggestions Inter Miami hope to lure him to Major League Soccer, and Xavi reiterated the midfielder will decide his own future.

"With Busi there will be no problem," Xavi said. "He knows that he is extremely important. He is a living legend and his personal decision will mark his future. Only he decides.

"We go as the president [Joan Laporta], Busi and I and there is a very good vibe. It will depend on Busi, what he wants to do."

Xavi praised his Barcelona players for remaining patient in their 3-0 victory over Sevilla as the LaLiga leaders moved eight points clear of Real Madrid.

Barca dominated Sunday's contest at Camp Nou before eventually finding the breakthrough via full-back Jordi Alba in the 58th minute.

Gavi added a second 12 minutes later and Raphinha, who assisted that goal, added his name to the scoresheet as Barca made it 10 wins in a row this year.

Sevilla focused almost entirely on defending, managing only three shots in total to Barca's 16, and Xavi is delighted his side were able to break down the visitors.

"This was a day to dare," he told DAZN. "We talked about it at half-time. It's always difficult to attack when the opponent has 11 players behind the ball.

"But we did it very well and I'm very satisfied with this result."

 

Barca took full advantage of Real Madrid's surprise 1-0 loss at Real Mallorca earlier in the day to extend their lead at the summit as they close in on a first title in four seasons.

"We've gone many games unbeaten and it's important we win like we did today," Xavi said. "Against a low block, we created many chances – that is a big positive.

"Things are working out for us. We're eight points ahead of Madrid, but there is still a lot of the season left."

With a goal and an assist against Sevilla, Raphinha has been involved in more goals (eight – four goals and four assists) than any other LaLiga player in all competitions in 2023.

Xavi hailed the Brazil international's performance and also reserved special praise for Alba, who himself scored and assisted in a single LaLiga game for the fourth time.

"I was already satisfied with Raphinha's performances," Xavi said. "He is good in high-pressure scenarios and has been giving us decisive assists. He's an extraordinary player.

"As for Jordi, he gives us a lot in attack and showed that again today. We knew there would be an opportunity to take advantage of some space that was left."

Alba was recalled to the starting line-up having been made to settle for substitute appearances of late and took full advantage of his opportunity to impress.

"I take advantage of the minutes when I play; when I don't, I dedicate myself to encouraging the youngsters so they know what it means to play for this club," Alba said.

"We are having a very good season, playing well, pressing well and getting our rivals to give us chances. 

"There are eight points on Madrid and, although there is a lot of the league season left, it is a very good distance to have."

Barca's 53 points after 20 LaLiga matches has only been matched or bettered on five previous occasions, including themselves four times.

The only blemish for Xavi's side was captain Sergio Busquets limping off early following a challenge with Youssef En-Nesyri.

Busquets is reported to have sprained his right ankle and is facing two-to-three weeks out, potentially ruling him out of Barca's Europa League tie with Manchester United.

"Hopefully it's nothing serious," Xavi said. "First we'll do tests and then we'll know more."

Xavi is expecting Barcelona's LaLiga title battle with Real Madrid to go down to the wire, despite his side opening up a five-point lead at the summit.

Barca, who last lifted the title in the 2018-19 campaign, have won 16 of their opening 19 league matches to reach the 50-point mark already.

It is only the sixth time Barca have hit that half-century milestone at this stage of a campaign, and they went on to lift the title in four of those previous five campaigns.

Reigning Spanish and European champions Madrid have struggled for consistency either side of the World Cup break, winning only half of their past eight league matches.

However, with the sides also paired together in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, Xavi insists Carlo Ancelotti's men can never be written off.

"I don't feel like the favourites, but rather just a candidate who can win the league," Xavi said at a pre-match press conference ahead of Sunday's meeting with Sevilla.

"Winning the league is one of our goals. We're competing against the current LaLiga and Champions League winners and it's hard for us to fight for titles against a strong side.

"I still consider Madrid a strong side and we will have to fight for the league right until the last or penultimate matchday."

 

Barca have won nine of their past 10 league games, including all four this calendar year, and are unbeaten in their past 14 LaLiga meetings with 13th-place Sevilla.

Jorge Sampaoli's side have won back-to-back matches without conceding to ease their relegation worries, and Xavi says his side will treat Sevilla as they do any other opponent.

"Every game brings pressure. Every time we go out on the pitch we're told it's a key game; always it's the same thing," he said.

"I've also heard that how we perform in the Europa League will determine the success of our season.

"We're a club that is exposed to pressure and that's welcome. It is better to be fighting for these titles than to be relegated.

"Up next is a difficult opponent, despite where they are in the table. Sampaoli has brought back their strong and competitive side, making them strong defensively.

"We know they are a team that can complicate things for us, a team with a lot of experience. Tomorrow is another test and we have to pass it with all three points."

The seven goals conceded after 19 LaLiga games is Barca's lowest-ever tally and the second lowest of any team at this stage after Deportivo La Coruna in the 1993-94 season.

Xavi added: "The state of the team right now is sensational. The players are working hard and getting results. In general we're in a good moment, especially in defence.

"We're playing much better football now and are understanding certain situations better. We are on the right track, but we're also still under construction in this long process."

Manchester City might be searching for a new left-back following Joao Cancelo's departure to Bayern Munich.

Cancelo, a star of City's last few seasons, joined Bayern on loan earlier this week having fallen out of favour with Pep Guardiola.

Bayern have the option to make that move permanent at the end of the season, meaning City could well be in the market for a replacement.

TOP STORY – Chilwell to join City from Chelsea?

The Times is reporting that City could target Ben Chilwell, the Chelsea full-back, to replace Cancelo.

England international Chilwell has had an injury-disrupted season and missed the World Cup due to a hamstring issue.

However, he would fit the mould when it comes to the attacking full-backs that Guardiola employs.

If City have a big windfall to play with from a potential Cancelo sale, could a fresh start in the north west be on the cards for Chilwell?

ROUND-UP

– The Mail and The Athletic are reporting that Everton are looking to make amends for their fruitless January transfer window by signing free agent Andre Ayew to address their striker concerns. Nottingham Forest are also said to be in talks with the attacker, who last played for Al Sadd in Qatar.

– According to The Times, Everton could also target former Real Madrid midfielder Isco after his move to Union Berlin fell through.

– Sky Germany reports Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino is close to signing an extension at Anfield, with his current deal expiring at the end of this campaign.

Paris Saint-Germain are said to be "furious" with Chelsea after Hakim Ziyech's loan move to the Parc des Princes fell through.

Barcelona coach Xavi insisted that they wish to build around Raphinha in the future, after the Brazil winger was linked with a move away from Camp Nou.

– Phil Hay of The Athletic detailed how Leeds United's Jack Harrison had a medical at Leicester City before a switch to the King Power Stadium broke down on deadline day.

Xavi singled out Pedri for praise after Barcelona went eight points clear at the top of LaLiga by beating Real Betis, comparing the midfielder to Spain's "greatest talent" Andres Iniesta.

Goals from Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski boosted Barca's title bid as they clinched a 2-1 win at the Estadio Benito Villamarin on Wednesday, with the Blaugrana hanging on after Jules Kounde's late own goal.

While Pedri missed two decent opportunities before Raphinha's opener, the 20-year-old created two chances and managed a game-high 30 passes in the final third during an impressive display.

Speaking after Barca piled more pressure on title rivals Real Madrid – who host Valencia on Thursday – Xavi heaped praise on the diminutive midfielder.

"He is a player who is on another level, I have seen very few like him," Xavi said. "He is talented, he is at the level of Iniesta, but Andres had a continuity to the point that he is still playing. 

"Andres is the greatest talent I've seen in Spanish football but Pedri is very similar to him. He can make a difference, he is already doing it."

Pedri was not the only young player to shine for Barca, as Alejandro Balde recorded his fourth assist of the season from left-back to tee up Raphinha's goal.

Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala (six) is the only player aged under 20 to create more goals for team-mates in Europe's top-five leagues this term, leaving Xavi excited by the teenage full-back's potential.

"I'm very happy for Balde, he has tremendous potential both in defence and in attack," Xavi said. "He gives us superiority by driving and that is very difficult to see in football.

"He has to exploit his potential even more, we encourage him to be transcendent, he is both a full-back and a winger at times. 

"Luckily we have three spectacular full-backs in Marcos [Alonso], [Jordi] Alba and Balde. He's so young and has this capacity, it is a joy to see him play." 

Barca's victory took them to 50 points after 19 games of the campaign. The Blaugrana have brought up a half-century of points by the season's midway mark on five previous occasions (in 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2017-18), only failing to win the title once when doing so (in 2013-14).

However, Betis coach Manuel Pellegrini felt his side matched the leaders and had been undone by a free-kick being taken from the wrong position in the build-up to the opener.

"It was a balanced game that anyone could win and it was decided by two set-pieces. The first goal is controversial," the former Manchester City boss said.

"First it was a foul on Aitor Ruibal and it was not given, then they took the foul 20 metres further forward than they should have and caught us off guard."

Barcelona moved eight points clear at the top of LaLiga as goals from Raphinha and Robert Lewandowski clinched a 2-1 win against a combative Real Betis side at Estadio Benito Villamarin.

Betis – themselves in the hunt for Champions League qualification – frustrated the leaders for over an hour on Wednesday, with Manuel Pellegrini's men defending resolutely and Pedri missing two good chances.

However, Raphinha bundled in a delivery from the impressive Alejandro Balde, before Lewandowski converted following a corner to put Xavi's side in control.

Jules Kounde's late own goal ensured a nervy ending, but Barca held on to pile more pressure on Real Madrid ahead of their fixture against Valencia on Thursday.

Luiz Henrique saw a shot deflect narrowly wide as Betis edged a scrappy opening, before the offside flag foiled Raphinha when he nodded in Frenkie de Jong's inviting cross after 33 minutes.

Barcelona improved before the interval, but they were denied by a strong save from Rui Silva when a fortunate deflection sent Pedri through on goal.  

Pedri drew another reflex save from Silva within three minutes of the restart after being teed up by Balde's cut-back, before Barca finally made the breakthrough 65 minutes in.

Balde was involved once again with a driving run down the left after a quick free-kick, teeing up Raphinha for a tap-in with a powerful low cross.  

Lewandowski – playing his first league game of 2023 after serving a three-match ban – doubled Barca's lead with 10 minutes left, swivelling to find the bottom-left corner after Ronald Araujo's flick-on.

Betis ensured a tense finish when Kounde bizarrely netted at the wrong end with five minutes remaining, but Barca held on for their fourth successive league win.

 

Barcelona coach Xavi applauded the decision by a court to overrule LaLiga's refusal to register Gavi as a first-team player.

The Blaugrana midfielder, who has been in superb form for the club this term, signed a new contract in September that saw him recognised as a first-team player rather than a member of the B team.

But LaLiga denied the registration of the new deal due to the club's financial situation, with Barca exceeding their salary cap.

While Gavi could continue playing this season for the senior side as a B team player, he would have been registered in LaLiga on a contract that expires in 2024 and has a €50million release clause – the agreement he signed in September is until 2026 with a €1billion release clause.

LaLiga president Javier Tebas warned the club would still be unable to register Gavi and other players such as Ronald Aruajo because they have "a deficit of more than €200m", he claimed on Monday.

But now a court decision has quashed LaLiga's ruling, delighting Xavi and paving the way for the 18-year-old to be fully registered as a member of their senior squad.

"It's great news," Xavi said. "It was one of the objectives we set for this transfer window. Now the ball is in LaLiga's court.

"I'm happy for [Gavi]. We hope he can sign up. It's very good news for us. The priority is that players as important as him are insured. It seems that we can now enrol him.

"I don't see him changing teams, really. He is very happy and happy here. I don't see him leaving."

Asked whether he felt Tebas holds ill feelings towards Barca, Xavi added: "I don't know. Ask him.

"I know him very little. I have greeted him twice. I have no personal dealings with him."

Gavi has made 18 appearances for Barca this season in LaLiga and featured in five of their six Champions League games as the club dropped into the Europa League.

He also played four times at the World Cup last year.

Xavi confirmed Barcelona are keen on bringing in a deadline day signing ahead of Hector Bellerin's exit.

The full-back is poised to join Sporting CP as a replacement for Tottenham-bound Pedro Porro and will be the second departure from Xavi's squad following Memphis Depay's move to Atletico Madrid.

Reinforcements could be on the cards for the LaLiga leaders, who also lost Gerard Pique to retirement, though Xavi's main focus is Wednesday's clash with Real Betis.

"We are aware of fair play. Hector has asked us to leave because he wants to play more," Xavi told reporters.

"With the departure of Hector, Memphis and the loss of Pique, we believe that a reinforcement would be good for us. We are open to a signing.

"I see the squad as competitive despite the three losses. Normally, the logical thing was not to need anyone.

"With Hector's departure, maybe yes. I still see it as very competitive. I'm still happy.

"I'm not looking at the market. I'm keeping an eye on Betis. We can move eight points ahead of second place. That's what I'm concerned with."

If Barcelona do make a late move in the market, Xavi confirmed they would not be available for the trip to face Betis.

"I already thought we wouldn't sign anyone, so don't worry. Whoever comes, he won't play tomorrow," he added.

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