Barcelona look to punch their ticket to the Champions League knockout phase

Barcelona’s players stand together during a training session in Hamburg, Germany on November 6, 2023, on the eve of the Champions League match against FC Shakhtar Donetsk. ((Photo by AXEL HEIMKEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Barcelona the opportunity to do something they haven’t done in the last two seasons — qualify to the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League.

The Catalan side can do just that against Shakhtar Donetsk. There are a few variations which would see them progress with two games to spare but the simplest would be with a win.

It’s only been two weeks since these two sides met with the Blaugrana pulling out a 2-1 win at home. However, it wasn’t the easiest of victories with the Ukrainian side knocking on the door for an equalizer in the latter half of the match.

“In the second half they caused us some problems and scored,” said center-back Jules Kounde. In the end it was not the performance that we wanted but tomorrow we will try to put in a more complete game.”

Given Barcelona’s run of performances since then, it will not be an easy task. Being able to count on some of their injured players should be a boost for Xavi Hernandez and his side.

“We need to start controlling games more,” Xavi said. “We have been recuperating important players like Pedri, Raphinha, Lewandowski, and Kounde. They are vital players for the team.

But we still need to impose our identity more, that’s the key. We want to play excellent football and to win games by a wide margin. But that’s the ideal scenario, and it’s not going to happen in every game.”

With how Barcelona played over the weekend in their late 1-0 win over Real Sociedad, there is nowhere to go but up. Against La Real, Barcelona were lethargic and simply hanging on with Marc-Andre ter Stegen coming up huge and keeping the home side at bay.

In what has been said too often during Xavi’s tenure, it was undoubtedly Barcelona’s worst performance of the season. Ronald Araujo scoring the winner kept things from becoming a full-on crisis but the display on the pitch does not lie.

Both the manager and players realize the performances need to improve.

“I think during games we need to be more focused. On a defensive level, at times we are too open and we are conceding more than last season,” Kounde said. “That is something we are working on, the team has brought in new players and we are still a young team with room to improve and we have to work on some details.”

As has often been said by Xavi, Barcelona is a, for lack of a better word, unique club in that not only do you need to win, but you have to do so playing good football. Anything other than that is a betrayal to the club’s identity.

With Frenkie de Jong and Sergi Roberto the only players still out injured, Xavi has as close to a full strength side as he’s had in a while. That being said, it is expected that he will rotate and give those who haven’t played a lot some minutes.

Raphinha, Oriol Romeu and Marcos Alonso could start. Then there are the two Joaos, Felix and Cancelo, who could be given a break as they’ve played in nearly every game since arriving along with their national teams during the break.

On both an economic and sporting level, reaching the knockout phase of the Champions League is going to be important. Doing it the earlier the better as a win could also allow Barcelona to all but top their group and to further rest players for the final two group stage matches.