'Extraordinary' milestone marks Barca charge as Sevilla visits

Barcelona welcomes Sevilla to Camp Nou on Sunday high on confidence as the club is leading LaLiga with the milestone of 50 points at the halfway stage of the season.

Only two teams have reached 100 points in the Spanish league's history, Real Madrid in the 2011-12 season and Barcelona the following year. It is the fifth time that Barcelona has earned that many points at this point of a campaign and the past four times the team went on to lift the title.

Coach Xavi Hernandez's team has been exceptionally tight at the back, conceding just seven goals all season in the top-flight, with new arrivals Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen key. Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen has returned to his best form too, making the Catalans Europe's best defense across the top five leagues.

By contrast, opponents Sevilla is having its worst season for some time, although the roots of revival under Jorge Sampaoli is finally growing. The Andalusians, 13th place, have won three of its past four league games, after only two victories in the first 15.

Extending its recent uptick in form will be difficult though, with Xavi proud of his team's growth since taking over in November 2021. The coach arrived with Barcelona in ninth place last season, and he steered them to second, qualifying for the Champions League. Even though the Spanish club suffered an early elimination from that competition, Barcelona has been steadily improving and won its first trophy under Xavi when the team beat rival Real Madrid to win the Spanish Super Cup in January.

Xavi has said the team's main objective is to win LaLiga and after the first 19 games left them as standalone leader, prospects look bright.

"I don't like drawing conclusions halfway through the season, everything can still be turned on its head," Xavi said after an impressive midweek win at Real Betis. "We have to match this first half. We are on a good path, but there are 19 more games to go –- the numbers {so far} are extraordinary."

Without injured winger Ousmane Dembele, Barca still earned a 2-1 win at the Benito Villamarin to hit 50 points. Dembele's replacement Raphinha netted the opening goal, after a clever quickly taken free kick by Frenkie de Jong.

Xavi said the goal demonstrated that his team was mentally ready to succeed this season.

"It's about attitude, competitiveness, desire, faith, our hopes are huge," the coach added. "We have confidence and the morale to achieve success."

The Blaugrana is boosted by Robert Lewandowski's return from suspension, with the Polish forward scoring his 14th league goal of the season against Betis.

Sevilla's main outlet for goals, Youssef En-Nesyri, scored two goals last weekend, ending his drought in the league. The Moroccan striker had a fine World Cup but had failed to find the net in 15 La Liga appearances prior to his last game.

If Sampaoli's side is to maintain its improvement, it has to do the near impossible — score against Barcelona at Camp Nou. No team has managed it this season in LaLiga from open play, with the Catalans keeping seven shutouts in eight home games. Only Espanyol striker Joselu has beaten Ter Stegen there, from the penalty spot in the 1-1 derby draw in December.

Player to watch: Sergio Camello

Rayo Vallecano forward Sergio Camello, on loan from Atletico Madrid, has had a fine season, with his goals helping the Madrid minnows climb to seventh. The Spanish striker, 21, has netted five this season, most recently in the 1-0 win at Villarreal on Monday. With Almeria visiting, he can help Rayo keep pushing for a European qualification spot.

Friday: Athletic Bilbao vs Cadiz
Saturday: Espanyol vs Osasuna, Elche vs Villarreal, Atletico Madrid vs Getafe, Real Betis vs Celta Vigo
Sunday: Real Mallorca vs Real Madrid, Girona vs Valencia, Real Sociedad vs Real Valladolid, Barcelona vs Sevilla
Monday: Rayo Vallecano vs Almeria
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© Agence France-Presse

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