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Barcelona ready to push for LaLiga top four but Ousmane Dembele contract is a dangerous distraction

The Catalan club’s recent improvement has left them within touch of the Champions League spots

Karl Matchett
Sunday 23 January 2022 09:09
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Spain’s top teams have been focused on cup antics most recently, particularly with the frequent meetings between FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Athletic Club in particular.

A Clasico meeting in the Supercopa semi-final was followed by Los Blancos triumphing over the Basque outfit in the final, while last year’s Copa del Rey final was repeated on Thursday night in a last-16 clash - but, unlike last season’s trophy-winning performance from the Camp Nou club, it was Athletic who beat Barca this time around. Now, continuing the recent theme of the trio of teams facing off with regularity, Athletic will play Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.

But before that, it’s back to LaLiga action and another set of familiar faces for Carlo Ancelotti’s men - they play Elche on Sunday, who they’ve just knocked out of the cup thanks to an extra-time winner from Eden Hazard.

With 14 places and 27 points between the teams in the table, it should be a routine outing for Real Madrid, who now have a four-point lead at the top after Sevilla dropped points last time out at Valencia. While it’s not an insurmountable lead by any stretch, Los Blancos are heavy title favourites and there isn’t huge pressure on them right now.

That’s not the case for the teams chasing a Champions League spot, including Barcelona.

A five-match unbeaten streak in league play has seen Xavi’s side up to sixth, with just two points separating fourth-place Atletico Madrid, Real Sociedad, Barca themselves and and Rayo Vallecano.

Barcelona will see an opportunity to push on again this weekend, playing away to Deportivo Alaves, who are in the relegation zone, after Atleti earned a very late win over Valencia.

While matters are still not perfect and Xavi is still trying to find the balance between possession high upfield and defensive solidity, Barca certainly have a gathering momentum of mood - but one off-pitch situation must be very carefully managed to avoid wrecking their Champions League hopes.

Namely, the contract stand-off with Ousmane Dembele.

The winger is free to leave in summer...or indeed right now, according to his manager. “Either he renews or we will look for an exit for him,” Xavi said this week. The club - not the head coach himself it should be noted - went further and suggested he wouldn’t play any more if he didn’t sign a new deal, resulting in Dembele hitting back at claims of “blackmail” on social media.

“As of today, I’m going to answer honestly without giving in to any form of blackmail,” he said on Instagram.

“I forbid people from thinking that I’m not committed to this sporting project. I forbid people from attributing intentions to me that I’ve never had. I forbid people from speaking for me or my agent, who I have total confidence in. I’m still under contract, I’m fully committed and at the disposal of the club and my coach.

“I’ve always given everything for my team-mates and also for all the fans. That’s not going to change now. I’m not a man who cheats and even less so one who’s used to giving in to blackmail.”

Xavi’s response was pretty blunt in turn: “I don’t think his absence has impacted the team.”

He must be cautious that this continues to be the case, especially with the likes of increasingly-key defender Ronald Araujo yet to sign his own new deal.

Barcelona are, slowly, getting back on the right path. Still with a financial minefield to navigate, they cannot let off-pitch matters get in the way of progress on it.

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