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NAPLES, ITALY - FEBRUARY 21: Robert Lewandowski (2nd L) of FC Barcelona, celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg football match between Napoli and FC Barcelona at the Diego Armando Maradona stadium in Naples, Italy, on February 21, 2024.
Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu via Getty Images

Barcelona needs a new manager. This is true both in the prescriptive sense that the present manager, Xavi, is not good enough, and in the descriptive sense that Xavi has already announced he will leave the club at the end of the season, necessitating that the club find someone to replace him ... four months from now.

For fans of the team (and for people who write blogs about it), this is a weird position. The course of action indicated by, say, an endless-seeming string of dull or outright bad performances has already been decided upon: The team needs a new manager and will get one. What is there to say? Boy, I sure am glad Xavi is leaving. That is not fodder for robust discussion. The net effect is both stultifying and crazy-making, like watching someone else read a boring book in slow motion.

When Xavi announced his departure a couple of weeks ago, you could wonder whether it would either galvanize or demoralize his team, but neither seems to have happened. Instead Barça trudges along, churning out the same performance again and again: Fruitless possession, bland attacking, embarrassing over-reliance on 16-year-old Lamine Yamal to generate danger in the final third, a toothless press, slapstick defending, tactical inflexibility, and a result that in any case satisfies no one. And then in the postgame presser a defensive Xavi insisting that the team played great, deserved better than it got, and is being judged unfairly because of standards unique to Barcelona.

Wednesday's Champions League round-of-16 first leg away to Napoli offered all of the above. The Blaugrana dominated the first half hour, made nothing of the handful of chances they created, then gradually lost control of the game as Napoli—a club in apocalyptic disarray whose manager, Francesco Calzona, had been on the job for all of 36 hours—figured out it could drag emergency defensive midfielder Andreas Christensen out of position, pounce on him during Barcelona's buildup, and play as high a line as it wanted without any danger of a Barça attacker running in behind. Barcelona nabbed a lead in the 60th minute, then fell apart again, blew the lead in comical fashion, and settled for a draw in a match a more composed and cohesive version of itself might have won by three goals scored in the first 20 minutes. Afterward, Xavi told the assembled reporters that his team had deserved a better result. Conservatively, I have seen this exact sequence of events 200 times this season.

And so ... what? They need a new manager. The body of those unsatisfied by each shabby Barcelona result now includes those who want Xavi gone, even though he's definitely leaving and in part because we already know it. Given the club's dire financial situation and the lack of an obvious interim replacement (the B-team coach, Rafa Márquez, embarrassed the club by openly lusting after Xavi's job months ago and more recently by shilling for a gambling company on social media, and Xavi's chief assistant is his own brother Óscar), the overwhelming likelihood is that they won't make a change before his predetermined exit. No doubt he had something like this in mind when he announced his resignation five months ahead of time: It increased his chances of finishing the season, and took the venom out of the opprobrium he'll face in the meantime. Because what is the point.

It's had the effect of making all of this feel like an interminable and disappointing offseason exhibition tour, or like Groundhog Day. With the meaningful trophies already out of realistic reach and Xavi's fate sealed, nothing that happens, shy of an incandescent performance by (or catastrophic injury to) Yamal, feels like it can have any real bearing on the club's future. All anybody can do is drum their fingers on the tabletop until July.

Unless, that is, the team collapses totally in the second leg of the Napoli tie, at home on March 12. Here I am thinking of, like, a 4-0 scoreline and the home fans chanting rude and embarrassing stuff about club president Joan Laporta. That's probably the last, best hope of a change before the end of the season. I don't even know why in particular to hope for it, other than that it'd be something, some stimulus to respond to, and renewed reason to at least wonder whether things might get better or worse. Andiamo!

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