Opinion

How ACL success could lead Xavi back to Barcelona

Al Sadd manager Xavi Source: Getty Images

There will be a corner of Spain taking some interest in the first leg of the AFC Champions League this week as Al Sadd meet Al Hilal.

This is not because of the political tensions that exist between Qatar and Saudi Arabia but the presence of a certain Xavi Hernandez on the sidelines.

If the Barcelona legend, in his first few months as a coach, can take Al Sadd to the continental title then his credentials as a future boss at Nou Camp will be strengthened immeasurably.

Andres Iniesta made headlines by swapping Catalonia for Kobe in 2018 to become the biggest name in the J.League, but Xavi has been in Asia since 2015.

He left the Nou Camp to spend the twilight of his playing career in Qatar. 

And what a playing career it was: eight La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League triumphs, two European Championships and one FIFA World Cup. And that is before he started lifting trophies in Qatar.

Yet lifting trophies in the Middle East as a coach would be more meaningful as this stage of his career after he became head coach for the first time in late May. 

If the 39-year-old can lead Al Sadd to the Asian title then the route back to Europe will light up even more brightly. It is no disrespect to the world’s biggest continent that this is where Xavi’s ultimate destination lies - it would be a great compliment if Asia can help him get back to Spain - and it is also no secret.

"I don't hide it, my goal is to return to Europe and return to Barca, it is my challenge ahead, but I'm still learning in this project and I'm also enjoying it,” the World Cup winner told Sky Sports a week ago.

“I know how Leo [Messi], Luis [Suarez], Busi [Busquets], Jordi Alba, [Gerard] Pique and Sergi [Roberto] are, I know how they train, their capacity for leadership, if they are sad or angry. I hope as a coach I could have three, five, eight or 10 players that I already know and I have a good relationship with."

A more common route to the bench at Barcelona lies through the club's B team as the likes of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique have demonstrated in the recent past. Qatar may be an unusual path but it could just work out perfectly for Xavi especially if he can win the Champions League.

After all, only one club from the western zone of the continent has won the tournament since Al Ittihad’s triumph in 2005. Al Sadd was that team in 2011 and could be again in 2019. 

There is still 360 minutes of football - at least - lying between Al Sadd and the trophy. Just getting past Al Hilal in the semi-final will be far from easy. 

The Saudi giants are still smarting from losing out to the Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014 in a final that they really should have won. Hilal see themselves as the biggest team in Asia and while that may not be the case, they have a star-studded squad with Bafetimbi Gomis, Andre Carrillo and Sebastian Giovinco all having played for the respective national teams of France, Peru and Italy. Throw in plenty of Saudi internationals and the team has what it takes. 

Al Sadd have a fair sprinkling of the Qatari team that won the Asian Cup in January and will be hoping that Xavi can make the difference.

He is still learning the ropes. One benefit of Xavi starting his coaching career in Qatar rather than Europe is that it allows him to develop and make mistakes away from all the attention that would be around if he was in Spain or England (he has also expressed an interest in working in the Premier League).

Xavi is trying to instill some of the principles he learnt from Guardiola. Taking Al Sadd towards a more expansive game is going to take time. 

The Qatar league is a relatively gentle affair but this is a Champions League semi-final and his biggest test yet.

There will be some serious pressure for the game with Hilal and especially the second leg in Riyadh later in October. If he can find a way through to the final and then to the title, then it would be an incredibly impressive start to his coaching career. 

Xavi the player already has lots of fans at Barcelona, but if he were to become a continental champion six months into the job, then Xavi the coach would have plenty of followers too.