The managerial hot seat at Barcelona needs to be filled again. And once more, one name stands out at the top of the candidate list.
Ronald Koeman was dismissed on Wednesday following a shock 1-0 loss to Rayo Vallecano (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) following Sunday's 2-1 defeat in El Clasico to bitter rivals Real Madrid, Barca icon Xavi is among the favourites to fill the vacancy.
Having made 767 appearances for the club, winning eight LaLiga titles and four UEFA Champions League crowns in a glittering 17-year spell at Camp Nou, there was always an element of romanticism surrounding a potential return ever since Xavi decided to hang up his boots in 2019 and venture into coaching.
That prospect is now a real chance to be fulfilled sooner rather than later, with sources telling ESPN that talks with Barca and Xavi are in talks regarding the vacancy. While an appointment is not yet a done deal -- Barca will appoint an interim coach for Saturday's game against Alaves -- the ex-Spain international could find the top job at his beloved former team impossible to resist.
Xavi's name had also been in the mix in the summer of 2020 before Koeman was handed the reins as a replacement for Quique Setien, and he certainly believed his immediate future belonged in Qatar enough to sign a new contract with Al Sadd till 2023 back in May.
Should the stars finally align, is the 41-year-old ready for the undeniable expectation and burden that comes with managing a club of Barcelona's stature -- especially just two-and-a-half years into his coaching career?
There is no denying that Barca and Al Sadd are two entirely different propositions altogether when it comes to their respective statures in world football. That is, however, by no means a slight on the latter, who are one of Asia's biggest clubs. Therein lies the benefit for Xavi and the invaluable experience he has gained in the Qatar Stars League that will stand him in good stead for a more daunting task ahead.
Like Barcelona, Al Sadd are one of two perennial title favourites in their domestic competition each season, where anything other than silverware would be deemed a failure. Xavi has not only had to deal with the pressure of meeting the lofty expectations of management and fans alike, but has also maintaining order within a dressing room made up of star players with a variety of strong personalities -- not unlike what he would experience at Camp Nou.
His inclination to tinker with his formation has often seen players deployed out of their preferred positions. A limit on foreign players in the AFC Champions League has meant that big-name imports have had to sit out continental campaigns. Through it all, there have been no issues of unrest in the ranks.
Algeria international Baghdad Bounedjah -- who netted a staggering 159 goals in his first four full seasons at the club -- and 2019 Asian Footballer of the Year Akram Afif are both standouts that could be forgiven for expecting a team to be built around them, yet have worked in tandem to perfection and are often selflessly setting one another up.
Through all of that, he has managed to deliver success in the form of a league title and two national cups in the past 24 months.
Of course, as can be expected with any young coach still finding his feet, Xavi's time as Al Sadd coach thus far has not been without setbacks. In his first year at the helm, Al Sadd finished third in the league -- their lowest finish in four seasons. Despite boasting the competition's best attack with 51 goals scored, their record of 29 goals conceded as only the joint-sixth best out of 12 teams. That was rectified in the following season's title-winning campaign where they had league-leading attacking and defensive records of 77 goals scored and just 14 conceded, with their goal difference of +63 way ahead of the next best in Al Duhail (+28).
Yet, given Al Sadd's historic standing as powerhouses of Qatari football, just how much of Al Sadd's current dominance is down to his work?
"No other coach in the recent history of the Qatar Stars League can match Al Sadd's dominance for the past two years under Xavi, but there's also the argument that he had a star-studded squad assembled for him," Ahmed Hashim, editor and co-founder of Qatar Football Live, told ESPN.
"Although they've had a few hiccups during Xavi's time, this team is at a different class altogether compared to the rest but the question remains would he have been able to win all those trophies with a less talented squad?
"There is no doubt he's got them playing some excellent football that catches the eye, which is for more pleasing than the version under his predecessor Jesualdo Ferreira."
Imagine Xavi running this style with Barcelona 🤔 pic.twitter.com/t0wAhqLI46— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 5, 2021
Finding that balance in a team is always going to be a challenge for someone like Xavi, whose commitment to an attacking brand of football has also led to some peculiar lineups that have been cavalier to say the least and raised a few eyebrows, not unlike the ways of his former mentor Pep Guardiola.
Earlier this year, his experiment with a defensive trio of Ro-Ro, Boualem Khoukhi and Abdelkarim Hassan -- essentially two full-backs and a holding midfielder -- which was at times coupled with a central midfield duo of two attack-minded creators in Santi Cazorla and Rodrigo Tabata, did not exactly go according to plan. It ultimately led to Al Sadd's shock exit in the group stage of this season's AFC Champions League, and an inability to make waves on the continental stage remains the only box that Xavi has not ticked in his time with the Doha-based outfit.
"Despite their domestic dominance, what would have really shown Xavi's worth would have been an Asian triumph," added Ahmed. "He has a very attack-minded approach and he didn't seem to learn from the lessons of the 2020 AFC Champions League campaign.
"In that campaign, he already had [the attack-minded] Cazorla, Afif, [Hassan] Al-Haydos and Tabata and the team would have been more balanced if he had selected the [more defensive] Jung Woo-young over [another attacker in] Nam Tae-hee.
"Many fans echoed similar thoughts about Jung but Xavi made the same decision again in this year's ACL, leaving out Jung and choosing Nam. Once again, the team showed defensive frailties and got knocked out despite finishing second in the group."
Nonetheless, an inability to make an impact on the Asian stage amid all his domestic success can be viewed as a minor blemish on the record of a fledgling tactician who is still learning on the job, and one who deserves credit for making the decision to take the path less travelled.
In the same way that the likes of Guardiola and Luis Enrique both eventually transitioned from player to coach at Barca, it seems that Xavi is destined to return to Barcelona in a managerial capacity. For these club legends, it appears that all roads lead to home.
And, if Barcelona had been willing to take a chance on a then-unproven Guardiola, who had only had one season in charge of the B team up till then, they certainly could do far worse than giving Xavi a shot given the current state they find themselves in.
Even if his journey back to Camp Nou dugout has taken an unconventional transit in Qatar, albeit one that has him better equipped for the job than even Guardiola was back in 2008.