Xavi begins Barcelona reign against Espanyol looking to balance excitement with realism

Former Camp Nou midfielder's task is to both dampen feverish nostalgia talk and mobilise enthusiasm for his appointment

Nostalgia moves the turnstiles at Barcelona. The club have seen so much proof of that over the last two weeks that some of their executives look as if they prefer homecoming ceremonies to the awkward business of watching ragged Barca struggle through 90 minutes.

For the presentation of former captain Xavi Hernandez as the new manager, 10,000 turned up on a Monday lunchtime. The following Wednesday more came to Camp Nou simply to glimpse and hear the cheerful words of Dani Alves, who has rejoined the club after five years away.

The president who has overseen these back-to-the-future signings, Joan Laporta, sounded in danger of getting carried away during his welcoming of the popular Alves, who is 38 and not able to register for competitive action until January.

Laporta openly pondered the possibility of Lionel Messi — who left for Paris Saint-Germain in August, let go because of Barcelona’s financial difficulties — and Andres Iniesta, who has been playing in Japan since 2019, returning one day.

“I don’t rule it out,” said Laporta, who made his own return to the presidency in March. “They made this club great.” The idea, as he knows, is far-fetched. Messi will be 36 when his PSG contract is up for renewal in 2023. Iniesta is 37.

Xavi, more pertinently is 41, has a brilliant back-catalogue of success as a midfielder for club and country, but goes into Saturday’s local derby against Espanyol with not a minute’s experience managing at senior level outside Qatar, from where the Catalan club headhunted him to replace the sacked Ronald Koeman.

At Al-Sadd, the club Xavi coached for the last two years, he enjoyed great domestic success, and a mixed record in the Asian Champions League. But the distinction between there and the touchline at Camp Nou cannot help but feel pronounced.

For a start there are the numbers. More fans turned up merely to see Xavi sign his coaching contract last week than typically watch Al-Sadd in domestic Qatar Stars League fixtures. The crowd for the all-Catalan clash this weekend should exceed 80,000.

It is a special occasion for Xavi’s debut, but it is anything but ceremonial. Barcelona have recruited their fourth different manager since January 2020 because of the alarming slump that makes supporters long so eagerly for souvenirs from a past where Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Alves were winning European Cups — and setting standards for the way football should be played.

The Barcelona Xavi has come back to sit ninth in La Liga, and face elimination at the group phase of the Champions League if, in Xavi’s second game in charge, they lose on Tuesday at Camp Nou to Benfica. The Portuguese club beat them 3-0 in Lisbon in September.

So Xavi’s task is both to dampen the feverish nostalgia while at the same time mobilising the enthusiasm for his appointment and his connection to the greatest of Barcelona eras. He referenced Pep Guardiola, his mentor and the coach when Barcelona were peerless, when he was introduced, as well as Messi and Iniesta, but pointed out firmly, “they are not here any more”.

Nor should the players who knew Xavi as their captain expect any privileges from Xavi the coach, he insisted. Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Sergi Roberto have, in the 10 days since Xavi took charge, learnt that, for him, “rules are important”. He will be a disciplinarian. Players have already been fined for arriving a matter of minutes late for meetings or practice.

He must be both inspiring ambassador of the past and guardian of a happier future, which means nurturing the likes of Gavi, 17, the 18-year-olds Pedri and Ansu Fati, and Nico, 19.

All of them have made startling progress in the turbulent last 18 months, and Xavi will be judged quickly on how he accelerates their development, and reassures the likes of Sergino Dest, 21, and Oscar Mingueza, 22 — both of who have played this season at right-back — that the signing of Alves, that most dynamic of full-backs, is not a vote of no-confidence in them.

If the new manager is tempted to dwell on an aspect of his past this weekend, then perhaps it should be his playing record in city derbies. Xavi played in 36 Barcelona-Espanyol games between 1998 and 2015. He was on the losing side only twice.

Nor was there ever a possibility of Espanyol looking down on Barcelona in the table come the end of any of his seasons. The gap looks smaller now. Were Espanyol, promoted in May after a season in the second tier, to come to Camp Nou and spoil the Xavi debut, they would leapfrog their local rivals in the table.

Updated: November 19th 2021, 3:33 AM
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