After 2,373 days away, Xavi Hernandez will be back with Barcelona for a match at Camp Nou on Saturday and he can expect a hero’s welcome.
Xavi’s return as coach was confirmed at the start of the international break but two weeks has done nothing to dim the crackle of excitement ahead of his opening game on the bench.
Almost 10,000 fans, at 1pm on a Monday, attended a presentation with club president Joan Laporta last week, when Xavi’s attempts to thank the Barcelona crowd were thwarted by the sound of them chanting his name.
Laporta will hope more than eight times that number will be in the stands on Saturday when Barcelona face neighbours Espanyol, the club whose claim to a rivalry has historically been only geographical but who now find themselves level on points with Barca in La Liga.
It is another reminder of Barcelona’s slide away from the elite. They are ninth, already 10 points behind Real Madrid in second and, more pressingly, six adrift of Atletico Madrid in fourth.
Averting the financial diaster of missing out on Champions League qualification will be Xavi’s first priority between now and May.
They have conceded more goals than Espanyol and Rayo Vallecano, both of whom have just come up from the second division. They have won none of their last four league games and only two of their last nine.
There is unlikely to be the option of a quick-fix either, with the club still desperately trying to reduce record debts of more than a billion euros.
Barca’s chief executive Mateu Alemany said on Wednesday that “as it stands there is nothing left” for signings in the January transfer window.
Yet Xavi’s return, for a while at least and certainly on Saturday, momentarily pushes all that into the background. Dismay at the club’s decline and Lionel Messi’s departure can be forgotten, apprehension even about Xavi’s own credentials as coach saved for another day.
– ‘Wonderful minority’ jibe –
When Xavi played his 765th match for Barcelona and his last at Camp Nou on May 23, 2015, he was substituted in the 86th minute and walked off to a standing ovation, blowing kisses to the crowd and accepting handshakes from the opposition players of Deportivo La Coruna as he went.
The attendance that day was 93,743 and the average attendance for the season just shy of 80,000.
Barcelona’s last home game, a 1-1 draw against Alaves three weeks ago, drew fewer than 38,000 fans, the lowest for a La Liga fixture at Camp Nou since 2001.
It was not a one-off. The average attendance this season has been just over 40,000, and the irony will not be lost on Espanyol, who may remember how Gerard Pique once chided them in 2014.
“They call themselves a wonderful minority, so much so they can’t even fill their own stadium,” Pique said.
The paucity of fans in Camp Nou in recent weeks has not, though, meant a lack of support.
A Barca side shorn of stars and now relying on a handful of talented youngsters has generally played to an atmosphere of gentle encouragement, rather than hostility.
If that has been in part due to a lowering of expectations, it has perhaps also come from a growing sense of apathy. The club’s wide-ranging failures at first caused shock, then anger and, more recently, acceptance.
Xavi’s return reignites the spark, through nostalgia and hope more than anything else, but the result this weekend at least will be a club that believes again.
Real Sociedad, the league leaders, play at home to Valencia on Sunday after Real Madrid face struggling Granada at Los Carmenes. Earlier on Saturday, Sevilla host Alaves and Atletico Madrid are at home to Osasuna.
Levante v Athletic Bilbao (2000)
Celta Vigo v Villarreal (1300), Sevilla v Alaves (1515), Atletico Madrid v Osasuna (1730), Barcelona v Espanyol (2000)
Getafe v Cadiz (1300), Granada v Real Madrid (1515), Elche v Real Betis (1730), Real Sociedad v Valencia (2000)
Rayo Vallecano v Mallorca (2000)