Football News

Gamble on youth pays off for Xavi as Barcelona return to Champions League last eight

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:00, 12 March 2024

The sixth Derby della Maradona occurred in Spain this evening with a Champions League quarter-final berth up for grabs.

Two weeks ago, Robert Lewandowski had put Barcelona in the driving seat before Napoli marksman Victor Osimhen ensured proceedings were all square heading into tonight’s second leg.

An occasion that began with Lamine Yamal (16y 243d) and Pau Cubarsí (17y 50d) in Xavi’s lineup; thus, Barça made history as the first side in Champions League history to start two players aged 17 or below in a knockout game.

Additionally, Cubarsi’s debut marked the second time in the competition’s history that a team gave starts to 30 different teenagers, following Ajax’s record of 33.

It didn’t weaken their side, as Barcelona ran out 3-1 winners (4-2 on aggregate), subsequently booking a last-eight appearance in European football’s most demanding club competition for the first time since 2020.

Fermín López, three years older than Yamal and Cubarsí, put the hosts in front before Joao Cancelo immediately doubled their lead. Raphinha was at the heart of both goals.

With the latter strike coming in the 17th minute, this was the earliest Barcelona had taken a two-goal lead in a Champions League game since April 2009 in the quarter-finals against Bayern Munich (12th minute).

Amir Rrahmani, though, pulled one back on the half-hour mark—his first goal in this season’s tournament. However, a known quantity decided the contest: Robert Lewandowski breached Alex Meret’s goal in the 83rd minute. He’s bagged 13 goals across his last 13 knockout stage games in the Champions League.

Furthermore, the Polish marksman has also contributed 12 goals (eight goals and four assists) in his last 11 games against Italian sides in the competition.

Barcelona remains unbeaten in all competitions against Napoli, alternating between a draw (3) and a win (3) each time. The visitors consequently have been eliminated on the 12 occasions they’ve failed to win the first leg of a major European competition knockout stage tie at home.

Xavi and company will find out who they next face on Friday when the 2023/24 Champions League quarter-final, semi-final and final draws occur.