On his way out of Camp Nou in what was his last clasico as Barcelona coach, Ronald Koeman had to press the brakes on his car sharply and frequently. Supporters had crowded around the vehicle, some to snap photos recording how close they got to the so-called Hero of Wembley, the man who, as a player, scored the goal that won Barca’s first European Cup almost 30 years earlier.
Others wanted to bang on the roof of the car, shout or gesture that, to them, the Hero of Wembley was no longer any sort of hero, and that he should quit. It was the autumn of 2021 and Barcelona had just lost at home to Real Madrid in front of 85,000. Koeman was sacked three evenings later.
Being bettered by Madrid is what puts a Barcelona coach in the most extreme and urgent jeopardy. So in many respects, Xavi, who succeeded Koeman, ought to be concerned.
At the end of his first season in charge, his first attempt at management in Europe, he was obliged to watch Barca’s great rival scoop up a double of La Liga and European Cup, at the end of a campaign in which Koeman and Xavi had overseen their club’s exit at the group stage of the Champions League. Like Koeman, Xavi counts great European success among his many past distinctions as a Barca player and knows fans expect it.
Xavi’s European record as a coach, though, is looking very threadbare already. If he can legitimately argue that the 2021/22 Champions League failings were his inheritance rather than his doing, another group-phase elimination this season, when Bayern Munich and Internazionale finished above a Barca freshly strengthened by the purchase of Robert Lewandowski and several other newcomers with champion pedigree, left lasting damage.
When Manchester United immediately knocked Barca out of the Europa League they had been relegated to, Xavi’s options for the important first lifting of a major trophy to endorse his position had reduced.
Fortunately, he has found the clasico, his direct confrontations with Madrid, more of a friend than an enemy over his 17 months in charge. There was the surreal trip to the Bernabeu a year ago this weekend when Barcelona walloped their rivals, albeit a Madrid already well on the way to the Spanish title, 4-0.
There was January’s Spanish Super Cup final in Riyadh, a commanding 3-1 triumph that delivered the first silverware, albeit a relatively minor trophy, of Xavi’s time as Barca coach. There was the first leg of the Spanish Cup semi-final at the Bernabeu two weeks back, albeit one that drew criticism for the tactically cagey approach of the Barcelona coach, who left with a 1-0 win thanks to an Eder Militao own goal and a mere 35 per cent share of the possession.
Barca beat Real in Copa del Rey first leg
There have been defeats, too, against Madrid: In the semi-final of last year’s Super Cup in Saudi Arabia and in the Liga meeting in October, when Barcelona lost 3-1 in Madrid. But the residual impact even of that result will look slight, if by the end of this weekend, Xavi’s Barcelona sit 12 points clear at the summit of Spain’s top division.
Victory in Sunday’s clasico would give them that gap over second-placed Madrid with 12 matches left of the league season, and a boost ahead of that second leg of the Copa del Rey semi, in Barcelona, in early April. In both competitions, Barcelona are the team with the advantage, and there is a scenario where Xavi ends up within grasping range of a domestic treble of Super Cup – already won – Liga and Copa del Rey – where the other finalists will be Athletic Bilbao or Osasuna – thanks to a series of positive results against Madrid in a short space of time.
Sunday will give Xavi his first experience as coach of a clasico in front of a home crowd, which, as Koeman would testify, can be both a curse and a blessing. “We need to attack better,” said Xavi as he reviewed the three successive 1-0 Barca victories that precede Madrid’s visit to the Catalan capital. Two weeks back, after the cup clasico, Xavi admitted he was “satisfied with the result, the hard work, the strong defending, but not so much the style of play”.
Losing clasicos is painful. But Xavi knows that eking out a draw or a narrow win through conservative, timid football will not be regarded as a flourishing celebration of his reign by the 80,000 watching what, for many of them, is the fixture of the year.