BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – Xavi Hernández needed a penalty to start his return to the Camp Nou as Barcelona coach in a winning manner.
Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Espanyol on Saturday started the way Xavi wanted it to, with his team dominating the ball as the great Spaniard did when he teamed up with Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta to create one of the biggest football teams as a maestro in midfield.
But the same problems that had led to the death of his predecessor quickly emerged. Barcelona’s attack failed to turn its big advantage into possession in the shot on goal except for the Memphis Depay penalty in the second half, while its defense disintegrated in the last half. Only Espanyol’s wrong attackers stopped the Catalan derby from closing in the draw.
“In general, I am happy, but it is clear that we need to improve,” said Xavi. “We are building a new project and these three points in the derby give us an impetus. It was hard because they could have scored. We were in control for 60, 70 minutes, but we had to be more patient and hold the ball. “It is a matter of knowing how to interpret the match.”
The crowd of 74,000 chanted “Xavi! Xavi! ” in the sixth minute in honor of the number Xavi held for 17 seasons when he helped Barcelona win 25 titles. He was hired two weeks ago before an international holiday for club competitions, when Ronald Koeman was released after a very painful loss.
Barcelona moved up to sixth place in the Spanish league, eight points behind leaders Sevilla and second-placed Real Sociedad.
Ivan Rakitic’s last goal put Sevilla at the top of the table after responding to a 2-2 draw at home with Alavés.
Atlético Madrid also needed a late goal from center-back Felipe Monteiro to beat Osasuna 1-0 at home.
Xavi is back after six years playing and leading Qatar, as the man Barcelona hopes to bring the team back to greatness after years of decline.
The former midfielder had said he would offer a surprise in his starting lineup with so many of his attacking players out with health problems. And he did not disappoint by making his debut with 17-year-old reserve team striker Ilias Akhomach, who made the starting lineup to help fill in the missing Ansu Fat, Ousmane Dembelé, Sergio Agüero and Martin Braithwaite.
A brilliant pass from 17-year-old Gavi Páez to clearly play Depay in the 48th minute was one of the few moments of inspiration from a Barcelona player in the opposing area.
Gavi was one of several young players that Koeman brought to the first team. Xavi had said he would use the talented teenager as a “wild card” and he played Gavi on the left side of his attack in a new position for the natural midfielder.
Gavi’s pass caused Depay to raise goalkeeper Diego López when Espanyol defender Leandro Cabrera slipped and knocked him down. Depay increased his lead in the league to seven goals when he sent the shot from the point to the right, while López lay on the other side.
After barely touching the ball in the first half, Espanyol had two excellent chances to grab the equalizer. But substitute Landy Dimata headed in from the empty net before Spanish striker Raúl de Tomás hit the post.
“A draw would be a fair result, but football is about scoring and we could not put the ball in,” said De Tomás.
Barcelona host Benfica on Tuesday seeking a victory that will seal the Catalan club’s place in the knockout rounds.
Alavés was about to take his second victory of the game at the Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium when Rakitic hit the crossbar with a shot from over the bar.
The draw left Sevilla ahead of Sociedad in goal. Sociedad will play Valencia on Sunday, when Real Madrid could overtake Sevilla if they win in Granada.
Defender Víctor Laguardia headed in a corner kick to give Alavés the lead in the fifth minute.
Lucas Ocampos equalized for Sevilla in the 38th minute, but his handball allowed Joselu Mato to turn the visitors forward at the time of the first half injury from the penalty spot.
ATLÉTICO STAYS NEAR
Diego Simeone had filled Atlético’s starting 11th with attacking players led by Antoine Griezmann, but Osasuna’s stubborn defense left the visitors three minutes away from gaining a point in the capital.
That was when Felipe jumped up to the nearest pole to split a Yannick Carrasco cross on the opposite side of the net and catch the winner.
The victory left fourth-placed Atletico one point behind Real Madrid in third place.
Atlético hosts AC Milan on Wednesday in a match they must win to boost their chances of advancing from a tough Champions League group that includes Liverpool and Porto.
AWAY FROM WINNING
Villarreal remained unbeaten on the road in seven league games this season after Celta Vigo left behind for a 1-1 draw.
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