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Why the pressure is piling on Xavi as Barcelona seek consistency

“It would have to be the coup of a lifetime, like ‘Money Heist,'” the Unionistas de Salamanca coach Daniel Ponz said. If his team was going to beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, he reckoned, they would have to hatch and execute “the perfect plan.” Audacious and outrageous, no mistakes. It was a long shot, that’s for sure: a tiny fan-owned club, founded in 2013, Unionistas play their league games in the third tier. They calculated that one cup game against Barcelona had raised as much in funds as in an entire season. Robert Lewandowski earns as much in six hours as the typical Unionistas player in a year.

And yet half an hour into their meeting at the Reina Sofia on Thursday night, a deep cross from the left dropped to Alvaro Gomez and, with a superb side-footed volley — with “all my soul,” as he put it — he guided the ball past Iñaki Peña and into the net. For the home fans, this was the best thing they could ever imagine. For Barcelona, it was just about the worst. But the worst thing wasn’t the fact Gomez had just scored or that Unionistas, who play league games against their B team, now led — the worst thing was that it wasn’t even that surprising.

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Let’s not get wild here. Let’s not turn all fatalistic, even if everyone else does, which is part of the problem. No, no one truly expected this and, no, the great heist didn’t happen in the end. A goal from Ferran Torres on the break from a corner they were defending just before half-time “killed” Unionistas, Gomez would later say. Then Jules Koundé and Alejandro Balde added two more in the second half to send Barcelona through. But for Barcelona to find themselves behind, on the edge, was, well, just kind of what they do. By the time Gomez scored, the third-tier team already had one really clear chance — and that had come after just 50 seconds.

It had happened before. This season against Granada, Barcelona conceded the first goal after 17 seconds. Against Alaves it came on 18. In Antwerp, it took 75 of them. They let in the first in the eighth minute against Mallorca, the 12th against Girona and the 19th against Celta de Vigo. Their last league game saw them concede in the 12th minute against Las Palmas. And they had just got back from Saudi Arabia where Real Madrid scored in minutes seven and nine. And then again before half-time. Barcelona have led in minute 75 just three times in 19 LaLiga games this season.

If this season’s league games ended at half-time, Barcelona would be in 14th place. Which doesn’t really matter because games don’t, and they aren’t. Right? Well, no, not really. Instead, they’re fourth, which isn’t 14th but which also isn’t very good. And nor, in truth, are they.

Basic? Sure. Harsh? Perhaps. But, well, it is what it is. Think back over the last few months and it’s hard to recall a genuinely good performance. In fairness, there were the first halfs against Madrid and Atletico — and in fairness, those are the games that mattered most — but September might be the last time there was a fully convincing display. It is January now.

Another stat for you, which you will have heard and might even have gotten a little tired of (you wouldn’t be the only one): When Barcelona beat Osasuna in the Supercopa semifinal last week, it was the first time in 21 games that they they had won a match by more than a single goal. Which also might not matter, and after the Osasuna game Frenkie de Jong insisted that what matters is winning. But, he admitted, “it is a long time” — it is also not entirely irrelevant, an indication that this is a team living on the edge, rarely convincing, never able to take a breath. It’s not just the stats that made Unionistas’ lead a little less shocking — it’s everything.

Just four days before, Barcelona had been badly exposed, their nakedness there for all to see. If Barcelona were on edge, they had been pushed over it by Real Madrid. On the day before the Super Cup final, Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez had told his team to enjoy it: moments like this might not come back.

Not if they play like this, they won’t. After it, he said they had played their worst game at the worst moment. That was true, but to suggest that it was a dramatic outlier would not be, which is why it is so concerning. Now it is the coach’s continuity that dominates the conversation — not least because he allowed it to.

As if that is all that is wrong.

After the Super Cup defeat, the sporting director Deco said nothing changes with the manager — his job is not at threat — but a few days later in the buildup to the Unionistas game, Xavi suggested that if Barcelona didn’t win anything this year he would walk away. Or at least that he wouldn’t be there any more.

“At Barcelona it’s always that way,” Xavi said. “I am [still] here as coach because we have met our objectives. They came to Qatar to sign me and they told me that the target was to finish fourth and we finished second. Last year they said we had to win the league and we did. We won the Super Cup too, so we were ahead of our targets. And this year the target was to win titles and qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League.”

“If you don’t win, there are consequences,” Xavi said.

“So if you don’t win, you won’t continue?” he was asked.

“The day they feel that I am not contributing I will go home, no problem,” he replied. “I am a Barcelona fan: they know that.”

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Xavi ’embarrassed’ after heavy Supercopa final defeat vs. Real Madrid Barcelona boss Xavi says he’s embarrassed following Barcelona’s 4-1 loss in the Supercopa final to rivals Real Madrid.

Barcelona boss Xavi says he’s embarrassed following Barcelona’s 4-1 loss in the Supercopa final to rivals Real Madrid.

A quick aside here: it seems extraordinary that in his second season — his first full season — at a club in crisis where post-Messi there was still a malaise, Xavi was told that he had to win the league. And hugely impressive that he did. The underlying stats — all those 1-0 wins, all those clean sheets, that extraordinary efficiency — suggested that it probably wouldn’t happen again, but the fact that it had happened at all raised the bar.

A title, if not the league title, was now an obligation. Now 10 points off in the league and with few truly imagining that they can win the Champions League — where the target was last 16 — the Copa del Rey looks like Barcelona’s only realistic chance of Xavi continuing. After 30 minutes into the trip to Salamanca, even that looked like it was coming to a premature end. That he had been asked says something about the pressure, the doubts, the divide; that he offered up the possibility of walking, without a word of complaint, did so too.

Exposed, obliged to talk four times a week, forced to be the spokesman for a club in which there are endless problems and most of them not of his making, to talk about things that have really nothing to do with him, Xavi has said a lot of things and they do not always convince. There have been excuses: he has talked about the pitch, but then he always did. He has talked about the pressure from the press, how the players are not impervious to it.

Teams that catch his out tend to do it on the counter, he says, a hint there of illegitimacy. But he has also talked about the things that have been missing. “Soul” was one of them. He has said Barcelona don’t finish the many chances they make; a few days later, he said that it was the defending that was the problem.

He said the injury to Gavi was a “dagger in the heart,” and he’s not wrong. He has bemoaned a lack of intensity, silly mistakes, the tension they feel: “We need to play freer,” he said. After the Almeria game he said the first-half display had been “unacceptable” and he tore into his players, their attitude. There was something simple too many of them didn’t do: run. That kind of message doesn’t always go down well, and is sometimes a risky last resort. But Pep Guardiola backed him: “If they really believe in the coach, it’s up to the players, now,” the Manchester City manager said, and Xavi revealed that he had messaged him to say thanks.

“We lack intensity this year,” Kounde admitted. After the Las Palmas win, Ilkay Gundogan said that he couldn’t work out why it was this way, why they seemed to need to be behind to react. That day, Xavi kept making the same gesture, pleading for the same, fairly simple pass, dinked over the defence. It was particularly frustrating for him, he said afterwards, because that was a pass he did so well as a player.

After the Unionistas game he said: “Sometimes I pull my hair out because we don’t do the right thing.” All of those things, and there are a lot of them, are true, the list of issues as long as the wait for Gavi to reappear.

There are individual players miles off their previous level — Lewandowski, Kounde, Balde, even Ronald Araujo stand out — and there have been key absentees: not just Gavi, the player who leads the press, but Pedri too. And Marc-Andre Ter Stegen of course. João Félix was fleeting, which tends to be the way. What was it Simeone said? “Anyone can play well one game.” The replacement for Sergio Busquets was Oriol Romeu at €3.5m, and Xavi soon seemed to decide that it just wasn’t the same. Just about the one consistent performer is De Jong, the man they tried to push out.

Xavi called this a team “in construction,” which was sort of true, but how long can you say that for? Can you say it if you’re worse than last year? In the two years since Xavi has been there, Barcelona have signed 17 players, for €256m in fees. There has been some good business, at least on the face of it: Gundogan and Inigo Martinez for free. And plenty of palanca-related jiggery-pokery, registration battles, lots of short-term fixes, players brought in on criteria that are not always the coach’s.

Of the 17 that they used in the two Super Cup games last year, 11 had gone by the time they played this year’s. Xavi said this was one of the most difficult moments, economically, in their history — and that was true, too.

But the most striking thing he has said is that Barcelona have played well, and he says it after almost every game. Which has become a little disconcerting, because there’s little real evidence of it. Before the Super Cup final, he talked about Johan Cruyff, the inspiration for it all. He talks about DNA, their genetic makeup. Xavi is the great ideologue, but watch his team and there’s not that much sign of that ideology. On Thursday, the Unionistas coach praised Xavi for having respected his team.

“He showed that he knew who we are,” Ponz said. Who Barcelona are is another question.

And all the while the pressure builds, at a place always liable to explode, where there are fault lines. This week, the president Joan Laporta visited the players, publicly. “Together we’re strong; he’s the most optimistic of all of us,” were Xavi’s words. But while the picture of them — published by the club, designed to be consumed — was supposed to express unity and action, it looked more like a bunch of naughty school kids in a classroom when the inspector comes, the teacher’s authority undermined. If it sought a reaction, it didn’t get it. Life carried on the same.

“We’re closer to success than defeat,” Xavi insisted, but 24 hours later, they were another early goal down in Salamanca. “We suffered,” Xavi said later, which would have been bad enough but no one was even that surprised.

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