Barcelona seeks rebound in Lewandowski’s 1st ‘clásico’

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With its Champions League hopes all but dashed, Barcelona knows that the Spanish league title has become a must-win to justify the club’s massive financial gamble.

Barcelona, which next plays at Real Madrid in the “clásico” on Sunday, will need a small miracle to avoid elimination from the group stage of the Champions League for the second straight year after winning only one of its four games so far. A 3-3 draw at home against Inter Milan on Wednesday left it on the verge of another unwanted ticket to the Europa League.

That was not in the plans when Barcelona mortgaged its future by selling off part of its television rights and other assets to be able to invest in new players. Club president Joan Laporta argued that the risk was worth getting the team back to winning major titles and past the painful exit of Lionel Messi.

Barcelona’s slim hopes of advancing in the Champions League hangs on winning its two remaining group matches and Inter failing to take three points against Viktoria Plzen and group winner Bayern Munich.

Robert Lewandowski, at least, has proven to be worth the money. The 34-year-old Poland striker has scored 14 goals in 12 games in all competitions since leaving Bayern; he leads the Spanish league with eight goals; and he shares the scoring lead in the Champions League with Erling Haaland and Mohamed Salah with five goals each. Lewandowski’s two goals against Inter this week saved Barcelona from a loss.

“After a bad game you have to face up to reality in the best way possible, show that you can play well and win,” Lewandowski told DAZN television ahead of his first “clásico” against Real Madrid. “It is a tough moment but we know that we have the opportunity in the ‘clásico’ to go out there and win the game.”

The rival teams are tied on points at the top of the standings, with Barcelona ahead on goal difference after both have seven wins and one draw.

Laporta said Friday that failing to advance to the knockout stage of the Champions League would cost the already highly indebted club 25-35 million euros ($24-34 million) in projected revenues.

“We have to change our focus,” Laporta said. “We have to remember that the team is still coalescing. Our objective was clear from the start of the season — to win the (Spanish) league. In the Champions League we wanted to get past the group stage and see how far we could get, but it is not going well.”

Barcelona has been hard hit by injuries, especially in defense after recently losing defenders Ronald Araújo, Jules Koundé, Andreas Christensen and Héctor Bellerín.

That left Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez with only Éric García and veteran Gerard Pique as center backs against Inter. Pique, a regular starter before this season, was booed on Wednesday after he let a ball go over him that led to a goal for Inter.

The only good news is that Koundé, who can play at right back or in the center of the defense, was back in training with his teammates on Thursday.

Barcelona’s defense will have to handle a Madrid attack headed by Karim Benzema and the speedy Vinícius Júnior, who leads his team with seven goals. Benzema, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde have each chipped in with four goals.

The only starter that Carlo Ancelotti will likely be without is injured goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, meaning Andriy Lunin will play in goal.

Madrid is unbeaten in 13 games overall this season and seeking to defend both its European and Spanish titles.

The game will also feature Barcelona’s eye-catching shirts bearing the owl logo of singer Drake.

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