Barcelona Loses Match, Wins UCL Group, Possibly Dooms Xavi
1:26 PM EST on December 14, 2023
In at least one significant respect, Wednesday's Champions League group-stage finale against Royal Antwerp didn't matter much at all to Barcelona: The Catalan club had already secured its passage to the knockout rounds, and only an extremely unlikely result in the parallel match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto could unseat Barça from the top of Group H.
But nothing can ever be ordinary for this ridiculous club, and so in other ways the Antwerp game mattered very much. For one thing, Barcelona remains in dire financial peril. Every group-stage Champions League win comes with a payday of around €2.8 million; a draw earns €930,000, and a loss does not pay out at all. Barça had already dropped a match to Shakhtar, and really cannot afford to be out here leaving millions of bucks on tables.
This tension seems to have shown itself earlier in the week. Initially the club announced a traveling party to Belgium that left out a handful of mainstays: striker Robert Lewandowski, midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Ilkay Gundogan, and defender Ronald Araujo, all of whom carry huge workloads for the team. The reasoning was clear: With nothing much on the line (and with the team having looked pretty burnt out in an embarrassing 4-2 home La Liga loss to upstart Girona three days earlier), the workhorses would be allowed to stay in Spain and rest, and manager Xavi would rotate the squad to give some needed playing time to others. Then, shortly before the team actually departed for Belgium, came an update: Lewandowski, Gundogan, and Araujo would travel with the team after all. It only got weirder when the club announced its game-day squad and starting 11, with the profoundly out-of-form Lewandowski included in his usual spot, and Araujo left off altogether.
In their respective pre-match press availabilities, Xavi and his boss, sporting director Deco, seemed to contradict each other on how exactly the switcheroo came to be. The manager characterized it as a decision made in group by Deco, club president Joan Laporta, and himself—not so subtly implying that it was a decision imposed on him by Deco and Laporta, known to operate in near-lockstep—and then Deco, a few minutes later, flatly declared it had been Xavi's call. The likeliest (and most fun) explanation, even if none of the principals will ever say so, seems to be that the executive duo wanted the team's backbone players brought along, at the very least as insurance in case the rotated squad put that €2.8-million payday at risk, and overruled Xavi to make it happen.
Money wasn't the only thing lending importance to the superficially meaningless Antwerp match. After the weekend's loss, Barcelona sits in fourth place in La Liga, seven points back of the now league-leading Girona and five back of Real Madrid. The bargain that sustained Xavi's leadership through Barcelona's league-winning 2022-23 campaign—OK, yes, the play is hideous to watch, wasteful of its players' talents, and antithetical to the club's mythology and ideals, but it gets results at a time when we need them real bad—is wobbling. Dull, stiff, programmatic tactics and a miserly approach to attacking could be papered over somewhat when the club was collecting 1-0 wins by the bucketful, but now the defense isn't anything special, the results aren't great, and the soccer remains just awful to watch. The team hasn't produced an inspired performance or resounding result since September.
So if the blaugrana didn't quite need a win on Wednesday, they also, well, kinda needed a win on Wednesday. Which, depending on your perspective, makes it either alarming or hilarious or both that Antwerp ran their asses off the pitch, winning 3-2. To make matters worse, it was a performance every bit as confused, ugly, and disconnected as the dire end stages of Ronald Koeman's doomed managerial tenure. Barcelona played like the players had never met each other before and didn't especially care to. The Belgians' first two goals both came off of appallingly sloppy attempts at playing the ball out from the back; the match winner, mere moments after Barça's 91st-minute equalizer, resulted from all four members of Barça's back line falling asleep on their feet at the same time.
(As for the players Xavi and his bosses apparently tussled over: Lewandowski looked bad and contributed next to nothing, continuing an extended run of crummy play that daily looks more and more like definitive age-related obsolescence. Seventeen-year-old Marc Guiu replaced him in the 72nd minute and scored Barça's equalizer in the 91st. Balancing that out somewhat, Gundogan, who'd entered in the 60th minute to replace a shockingly inept Oriol Romeu, was the one who assisted Guiu's goal, with a lovely free-kick delivery.)
Things are going backward, and screwy: Barcelona won its group and has returned to the Champions League knockout stage after a deeply embarrassing two-year absence ... and this legitimately might be the low point of Xavi's stewardship. The vibes are sharply and unmistakably worse today than at any previous point since he replaced Koeman; the attendant Spanish and Catalan press organs have been boosters of his before now, but to hear them tell it on Thursday morning, he may now have good reason to fear for his job.
To an extent, this kind of scorn applied to a manager who just directed his team to a(n existentially vital!) Champions League group win, a matter of months after he also won a La Liga title, is itself a form of obnoxious Barça exceptionalism. All but a tiny number of clubs on the face of the earth would gladly swap places, right now, with Barcelona, whose fans and attendant press have spent the past 18 hours behaving more or less as though somebody just assassinated their mother. If your impulse, in the face of all this wailing and rending of shirts, is to yell Get over yourself, clowns!, well, that's fair.
On the other hand, the game doesn't happen in a standings chart. It happens on a playing field, where Xavi's team—laden with stars and young prodigies demonstrably capable of producing beauty and thrills—is miserable to watch. Surely it doesn't have to be the case that this team can only win, when it wins, via soccer that makes you feel bad, or bored. Surely it doesn't have to be outperformed at the nominal tenets of Barcelona play—protagonism, fluid interplay, daring attacks and ballsy defending—on its own (substitute) field, by a Girona club that spends on its whole squad half of what Barça spends on forwards alone. If the whole is going to be less than the sum of its parts, then what is the argument for keeping this manager, or for having one at all?
That's the closest pass to reason all this upset makes. Ugly is OK up to a point, so long as it's vindicated by results, without which it's just something nobody likes or wants; even and especially in its diminished state Barcelona can't content itself with a product that neither thrills spectators nor stuffs the coffers, and only has a limited capacity to wait around for improvement.
For a while yet, Xavi might be protected by the very same financial disarray and Barça exceptionalism that produce much of the pressure he's under: Replacing a coach mid-season costs money, and sacking a genuine club legend on humiliating terms would be a blight on the institutional memory that is perhaps Barça's most valuable remaining asset. And while the choice to rotate the squad for Antwerp might have hurt Xavi with the club's brass, it may also have strengthened his standing in the locker room. It's a big dumb mess, that is to say, and in that it's also drearily normal.