Barcelona squanders lead in 3-3 draw before Xavi takes over

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Xavi Hernández had plenty to like and much more to lament about Barcelona’s wild 3-3 draw at Celta Vigo on Saturday, when his soon-to-be team squandered a three-goal halftime lead.

Playing its final match under caretaker coach Sergi Barjuan before Xavi takes over as its new full-time manager, Barcelona roared out to a 3-0 lead after playing one of its best halves of the season. But injuries to 19-year-olds Ansu Fati and Nico González, who were having inspired performances, and the resurgence of its defensive doubts helped Iago Aspas lead Celta back with his second-half brace.

Aspas capped the comeback with a second goal on one of the final kicks of the match when he scored from long range while Barcelona was hunkered down in its box begging for the final whistle.

“We forgot we had to play the second half,” said a dejected Frenkie de Jong, who provided Barcelona’s only spark after halftime with a shot that hit the crossbar with the score at 3-2.

“We need to show more character. This game was important to move up a bit in the table. It is a very hard blow.”

Barcelona remained in ninth place in the Spanish league and with its horizon of success narrowing to simply securing a top-four finish to ensure its spot in the Champions League.

Real Madrid increased the gap between Barcelona and the top of the standings to 10 points after beating Rayo Vallecano 2-1.

The draw in Vigo came hours after Barcelona announced that Xavi had agreed to sign through 2024. That will free Barjuan to return to coaching its reserve team after three games in charge following the firing of Ronald Koeman.

Memphis Depay said he was excited for Xavi to come, but that it was also up to the squad to turn things around.

“I think that he can lift our spirits,” said Depay, who scored Barcelona’s third goal. “(But) we have to lift our spirits together as the players, and speak about things and have conversations to have more results in the games.”

Xavi will be presented on Monday and then have a two-week international break to settle in before the former Barcelona midfield star debuts on Nov. 20 against Espanyol. He arrived to Barcelona earlier on Saturday after ending his stint at Qatari club Al-Sadd, first as a player and then as a budding coach.

“This was my dream and now the dream comes true,” Xavi said. “Of course it is a big challenge, but I am ready, we are ready — all the technical staff — to start immediately.”

He has his work cut out for him.

Fati had to be replaced after netting Barcelona’s opener. Midfielder Nico and defender Eric García went down in the second half. They joined an injured list that already included Pedri González, Gerard Pique, Ousmane Dembelé, Sergiño Dest, Sergio Agüero and Martin Braithwaite.

Fati’s left hamstring injury ruled him out of Spain’s World Cup upcoming qualifiers against Greece and Sweden that it needs to win to qualify directly for next year’s tournament. He was replaced by Espanyol striker Raúl de Tomás, who hours earlier scored in a 2-0 win over Granada that left Espanyol level on points with Barcelona.

Sergio Busquets, Xavi’s old teammate, doubled the advantage in the 18th with a rare goal for the veteran. And Barcelona looked ready to roll to a big win after Depay sliced a header home from a cross by Jordi Alba after a key pass by Nico in the 34th.

But then the injuries came, and Celta took the initiative when Aspas pulled one back in the 52nd. The striker finished off a ball that Marc-Andre ter Stegen failed to clear a poorly blocked a shot.

Barcelona was then on the defensive when Nolito Agudo’s 74th-minute header cut the deficit to one.

“This Celta never gives up,” Aspas said after he ignited the crowd at Balaídos Stadium with his clutch goal.

CLOSE CALL

Madrid needed Toni Kroos to excel on both ends of the field to ensure it took a two-point lead before second-place Real Sociedad visits Osasuna on Sunday.

The German midfielder volleyed in an assist from Marco Asensio in the 15th before Karim Benzema increased his league-leading tally to 10 goals from a well-placed pass by David Alaba.

Rayo rallied with substitute Radamel Falcao pulling one back in the 76th moments after Bebé had hit the post. Falcao only lasted 11 minutes before he was substituted for an apparent leg injury.

Madrid avoided a Barcelona-like collapse when Kroos saved a goal-bound shot by Óscar Valentín in final flurry by Rayo that pushed the hosts into their box.

LEVANTE WINLESS

Alavés striker Joselu Mato scored two late goals, including a stoppage-time header, in a 2-1 victory that kept last-place Levante as the only winless team in the league.

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