RIYADH: It will not have escaped the attention of Barcelona President Joan Laporta that former boss Pep Guardiola won his third English Premier League title on Tuesday just as Ronald Koeman’s men drew with Levante to leave hopes of a La Liga title fading.
However, there was a bit of good news for Koeman this week when Xavi Hernandez signed a two-year extension to his contract as head coach of Qatar’s Al-Sadd. The Dutchman has never really looked secure in Spain and it did not help having a potential Guardiola Mark II waiting in the wings.
The name of Xavi, a former team-mate of Guardiola and a key member of his team that won four La Liga titles and two UEFA Champions League prizes and plenty more besides, has long been swirling around the Catalan city. Ever since the Spanish star, a visionary midfielder, hung up those boots, he has been talked about as a future Barca boss by people who know what they are talking about.
In 2019, Guardiola said: “Xavi was already a manager when he played. His eyes sparkled watching football. You have to give him time. Sooner or later, he will manage Barcelona. It would excite me to see him manage Barcelona.”
The current Manchester City boss is not the only one to manage Xavi and see his coaching potential. The midfielder became World and European champion with Spain under Vicente Del Bosque. “The time will come when he will be the ideal man for Barcelona,” Del Bosque said last year.
For some that time is now. Guardiola was 37 when he took over the first team, Xavi is 41, but while a return to Barcelona is surely going to happen, he may not quite be ready to follow in the footsteps of his former team-mate and boss just yet.
In May 2019, Xavi took his first coaching job, not in Spain or even Europe, but Qatar. He had finished his playing days with Al-Sadd and stayed in Doha in a different role. There were a couple of cups in 2020 but there has rarely been, anywhere, such a dominant campaign as the Qatar Stars League (QSL) just finished. Al-Sadd, full of Qatari internationals, not only won the title but did so unbeaten with a goal difference of, wait for it, plus 63.
Solid at the back, Al-Sadd were unstoppable going forward. Led by the fantastic Santi Cazorla and the prolific Algerian attacker Baghdad Bounedjah with the 2019 Asian Player of the Year Akram Afif darting around on the wings, the team carried threats from all over the pitch.
With such dominance at home, it was understandable Al-Sadd’s ambitions were turning toward the AFC Champions League long before the QSL season finished. If Xavi could add the continental title to his domestic success, then his status as one of the world’s most promising coaches would be assured.
He had Asian experience. The four-time UEFA Champions League winner led Al-Sadd to the last four and an exciting defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabian giants Al-Hilal in 2019. In 2020 there was a second-round loss to Persepolis of Iran. Expectations this year were high, especially as the group was winnable. There was Al-Nassr of Saudi Arabia, a team that entered the tournament on the back of inconsistent league form, Foolad — not one of Iran’s powerhouses — and Jordan’s Al-Wehdat.
Yet Al-Sadd fell at the first hurdle. It started with a draw against Foolad and a loss to Al-Nassr. Back-to-back wins against Al-Wehdat, making their first appearance in the tournament, and then victory over Foolad brought the second-round within sight. All that was needed was a draw in the final game to make it to the last 16 but Al-Nassr ran out 2-1 winners.
Xavi complained about the conditions of the pitches and refereeing decisions, but he did make some mistakes, especially in the two games with Al-Nassr. Under coach Mano Menezes, the Riyadh team drew Al-Sadd forward, and kept their nerve, shape, and discipline to hit on the break. It was the perfect tournament performance from the Saudis.
In the return match, there were some questionable decisions but ultimately, Al-Sadd failed to get through a group they should have got through.
It suggested that Xavi, who has already turned down an approach from Barcelona, needs more experience before heading to his former club. Two more years with Al-Sadd, and more challenges, could be a wise move.