LONDON: One wonders whether the Barcelona officials who were in Qatar this week to finalize the deal to take Xavi — in his words — “back home,” watched Al-Sadd’s AFC Champions League games against Al-Nassr from April.
That was when the Saudi Arabians gave the new boss of the Blaugrana quite a lesson, perhaps the most important lesson he will take to Europe from his 30-month stint in Asia.
That is, possession may be acred for one brought up on the Barcelona way, but in Asia, just as in Europe, teams are increasingly happy to let you have the ball in areas that will not hurt them.
At the outset, Xavi’s Al-Sadd seemed to be holding all the trump cards.
Picture the scene. On the one side, you had the Spaniard’s team that had just clinched the Qatar Stars League championship in stunning fashion. Not a match had been lost in the 22-game domestic season and there was a goal difference of plus-63. Al-Sadd had stars such as Santi Cazorla, Algerian goal-machine Baghdad Bounedjah and Brazilian midfielder Guilherme, as well as much of the Qatari team that won the 2019 Asian Cup.
On the other was Al-Nassr. The Saudi Arabian team are one of Asia’s biggest but, as April dawned, were running far below the gear that Al-Sadd found themselves in. The Riyadh club had mixed results at home, which led to the hiring of Mano Menezes in the days leading up to the start of the Champions League. The former Brazil boss became the third coach in less than six months.
With the expansion of the continental tournament from 32 teams to 40 this year, only the team that finished top of each of the 10 groups was guaranteed a place in the knockout stage, along with the six-best runners-up. Al-Sadd arrived in Riyadh as favorites and on the back of a 22-match unbeaten run, while Al-Nassr had lost their previous two games.
Both teams started with disappointing draws. Al-Wehdat were playing in their first Champions League game and the Jordanians were delighted to hold Al-Nassr to a 0-0 draw. Al-Sadd needed a late strike from Yusuf Abdurisag to earn a 1-1 draw with Iran’s Foolad. Then came the first big meeting between the two.
It went 3-1 to Al-Nassr. It was practically the first game for Menezes and he chose to allow Xavi’s men to have most of the ball, but in areas that did not pose much of a threat. The Yellows looked more incisive and with the running of Ali Al-Hassan and Abdulfattah Asiri and the loitering presence of Abderrazak Hamdallah in attack, the nine-time Saudi Pro League champions proved to be a threat on the counter — too much for the vulnerable Al-Sadd defense to handle.
“I think the result is unfair,” Xavi said after the game. “We deserve more than this result and at least a draw, considering the performance shown by the players and the many opportunities we missed, and I will not comment on the referee’s decision and the incorrect penalty kick.”
Again, a good performance, with plenty of territorial control, but no end result.
Al-Sadd looked good in parts but the defense never looked quite solid enough to keep out Al-Nassr. Perhaps so much dominance at home was not the best preparation for Asia against teams that came from more competitive leagues.
“We were good in the first 25 minutes in the second half, and we scored the equalizer and we were close to scoring the second, but there were some mistakes in defense because of which we conceded the second goal,” Xavi said. “Football is about mistakes, and in a strong match like this we must not make these mistakes, which cost us the match. We must focus on the upcoming matches.”
Al-Sadd seemed to have learned from the mistakes when winning the next three games. That meant a final-day showdown with Al-Nassr, less than three weeks after the first meeting. As group leaders, the Qatari champions needed just a point to progress while the Saudis had to collect all three. It was the first time for the 2010 World Cup winner to be in this situation as a coach.
Al-Nassr worked well to put Al-Sadd under pressure, to deny the players the time and space they were accustomed to having at home where most teams sat back and hoped not to concede. Once again, there was some uncertainty at the back and Al-Nassr pressing led to a goalkeeping howler in the first half that led to Hamdallah’s opener. From that point the Qataris were chasing the game, lost their heads a little, and Al-Nassr always looked like getting the win that they eventually got. The Saudi Arabian team went through while Al-Sadd missed out by the tightest of margins.
“This is football,” Xavi said. “We went out of the Champions League because of one goal and we did not give our best, but we were not very bad. This is football, it has victories and defeats. We must accept it.”
These are the kinds of lessons that Xavi was looking for when he came to the Middle East, the kinds of lessons that, if heeded, will stand him in good stead for Barcelona. Despite all the games the former midfield maestro won in Qatar, it may well be that the twin losses against Al-Nassr may be more influential in his coaching career in Europe.