Last October, Barcelona’s players and manager boarded a late-night flight from Madrid to return home, expecting a bad reception. By the time they landed, coach and players were no longer colleagues.
Ronald Koeman had been sacked while he sat at the front of the aircraft. He had just overseen a second defeat on the trot, one of them a clasico against Real Madrid. Barca were also heading towards elimination at the group stage of the Champions League.
Fast forward 12 months and the Barcelona who head to the Bernabeu stadium this weekend to contest the leadership of La Liga with their arch-rivals will board their flight much changed in personnel.
The squad is far stronger, on paper, than the one Koeman picked from in his last days in charge. Robert Lewandowski and not Luuk de Jong will be the experienced centre-forward looking forward to his first clasico; Jules Kounde, a €50 million summer purchase, rather than Oscar Mingueza, will be in contention for the tricky right-back position, charged with marking Vinicius Junior.
And the manager? When Koeman was sacked, several thousand metres into Spanish airspace, Barcelona had already lined up his replacement in former club captain Xavi, a relative novice to management at 41 years old. He said yes to his first job as a senior coach in Europe on the promise that, in 2022, big money would somehow be found to strengthen the squad.
More than €200m was spent in his first two windows, much of it on Lewandowski, Kounde and the wingers Raphinha and Ferran Torres. High salaries were offered to players with champion calibre, such as European Cup-winners Marcos Alonso and Andrea Christensen and to Franck Kessie, fresh from winning Serie A.
Barcelona, heavily in debt, had raised the funds for their transfer splurge by selling off stakes in future TV income and other revenue-generating assets. In stretching the margins of the budget, a decent run in the Champions League – going deep into the knockouts can earn a club several tens of millions – was almost assumed.
Barca 3 Inter Milan 3: player ratings
But Wednesday’s 3-3 draw at home to Inter Milan puts Xavi in the awkward position of likely being the manager, the would-be saviour who oversees two successive failures to get out of the group phase.
As when Koeman left, Barcelona are sitting third in a group led by Bayern Munich with two matchdays left. They will only go through if Inter fail to win against Viktoria Plzen, who have lost all their games so far, and Bayern; and if Barca win both their remaining games.
Last year, Xavi was not blamed for the European shortfall. He inherited the poor points tally left by Koeman. This October he is the blessed inheritor of a much reinforced squad and, as he admitted after Barca had conceded a half-time lead at Camp Nou to end up scraping a point with two late Lewandowski equalisers. “If we can’t beat Inter at home, we don’t deserve to go through.
“The team’s errors are the manager’s errors,” he added, but also pointed out direct failings that collapsed Barca’s chances of progress. Inter came back into a thrilling contest when Gerard Pique misjudged the offside line and Nicolo Barella tucked the ball home for 1-1. Inter went 2-1 up through Lautaro Martinez after Sergio Busquets had carelessly conceded possession in midfield.
Pique, a pillar of Barcelona’s defence for the last 13 years, would likely not have played had Kounde, Christensen or Ronald Araujo, the combative, athletic young centre-back, not been injured.
The veteran was doubly blamed by Xavi when the coach told his post-match press conference that preparation for the Inter visit had specifically included marshalling Barella’s late runs into the opposition penalty area. “The planning was good. We had talked about Barella coming from deep,” said Xavi.
These are not happy times for the long-serving Pique, or Busquets, or Jordi Alba, the last of whom owned the left-back position for a decade but finds himself superseded by Marcos Alonso and the emerging Alex Balde. The veteran trio know Xavi from when he was a teammate, who won his fourth Champions League title as a player alongside them.
Pique and Alba now know his loyalty does not extend to automatically picking them. The veterans have also had to hear the club president, Joan Laporta publicly criticise them for not accepting significant wage reductions in order to help the club’s finances.
Laporta remains a strong backer of Xavi, but questions are mounting about how effectively he is harnessing his assembly of new signings. He will oversee his 50th match as manager on Sunday, against the European Cup holders and Liga champions. He goes to the Spanish capital with a points-per-game average no better than Koeman’s was over 67 matches in charge.
The Champions League, reckons Xavi, has been “cruel” to Barcelona. Lose a clasico, as Koeman would testify, and the reaction of those around the club can turn very cruel indeed.