On Thursday evening, in a game Barcelona had to win to keep any residual title hopes alive, it had looked as if they were stuttering and stumbling to a draw with Osasuna.
It had been a gutless performance, in line with a trudging season for the club that has so desperately contrasted with years gone by. As usual, Lionel Messi had bailed them out, swerving in a stunner to cancel out José Arnaiz's opener, but for all their captain's brilliance, they stood on the brink of surrendering their title.
Lionel Messi doing Lionel Messi things. pic.twitter.com/c1SaOFAA9w— 90min (@90min_Football) July 16, 2020
We thought we were staring at a Barcelona team whose morale was at its lowest in recent memory, but there was another gut punch to come. On 94 minutes, Enrique Barja picked out Roberto Torres at the back post, and the midfielder rubbed salt into the Catalans' gaping wounds.
It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Real Madrid's win at Villarreal opened the gap up to seven points heading into the final round of fixtures, but the whimpering nature with which Barca bowed out signified how far they have fallen since their Guardiola glory days.
The club has fallen to bits. While the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Sergi Roberto and of course Messi have stayed the course, the core of a team who could once start 11 La Masia graduates and still win any game of football has been slowly stripped away.
Congratulations to Real Madrid on winning the 2019/20 La Liga title— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) July 16, 2020
Gone too is their signature footballing identity. Once distinctive, uncompromising and relentless in their tiki-taka 4-3-3, Ernesto Valverde and more recently Quique Setien have been unsure how to best set up a fractured group of players, resulting in a tentative, inconsistent run of results. This has allowed Los Blancos to run away with the title; the nightmare scenario and an unforgivable sin.
It's perhaps understandable, then, that as the club are faced with an unprecedented identity crisis, everyone seems to be looking to Xavi; a man sewn into the fabric of the club for a decade-and-a-half of historic highs; to come in and turn their fortunes around.
Since his emotional farewell in 2015, he has been cutting his teeth in management with Al Sadd in Qatar. Those of a Barca persuasion have watched on with huge intrigue as he has implemented the only style of play he has ever known, becoming a popular figure in his new surroundings in the process - the club recently went to pains to extend his contract to cover the 2020/21 season, fearing the consequences of his potential departure on their title hopes.
Xavi: Happy to renew my contract with #AlSadd, I’m working with the club’s management during the current period on a number of issues, including the renewal of Akram Afif’s contract, and signing foreign players to replace Gabi and Marco Fabianhttps://t.co/y5yUunEkzG pic.twitter.com/oamTseHo9Z— AlSadd S.C | نادي السد (@AlsaddSC) July 5, 2020
The Qatari Stars League isn't the most accessible of divisions to fans in Europe, but a tactical breakdown from The Coaches Voice suggests the teachings of Guardiola - and the style of football Barcelona are so desperate to see return - have never left his heart.
Al Sadd have scored 11 goals more than any other team this season, with an attacking, possession-oriented brand of football built around high-pressing full-backs and a fluid midfield three.
Out of possession, Xavi's team has been a touch more compromising than the great Barca teams of the past, perhaps owing to player limitations. But the Cruyfism principles - seamless transitions with every player contributing to every phase - have been there for all to see.
Xavi's compassionate coaching style and clear faith in the La Masia academy should be held up as further checkmarks in his column. Especially at a time when the club - financially mismanaged to the point of impending doom - simply must strip back its' playing budget.
Lot of confusion about Barcelona, so I've broken the whole situation down in a bit of depth here.— Chris Deeley (@ThatChris1209) June 24, 2020
Why are they sell/swapping Arthur? They need the €€€.
Why do they need the €€€? That's what the article's forhttps://t.co/hTE5ePAgPc
It remains to be seen, however, if a Barcelona board which has proven itself to be short-termist in the extreme would agree to sacrifice immediate success in order to build a long-term legacy. Swapping the prodigious Arthur Melo for the ageing Miralem Pjanic says it all about where their priorities lie, and it's that sort of decision-making which will have Xavi seeking substantial reassurances if he is to be offered the role.
Ultimately, Xavi is a club legend, who, should he earn the job, would do so off the back of his standing within the club, rather than his minimal proven coaching pedigree. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United and Frank Lampard at Chelsea have shown that such an appointment can succeed, but only with patience and support at board level.
For this to work, the knee-jerk decisions simply have to go, and it's just that which may mean that Xavi and Barcelona are no longer compatible.
Barcelona are facing a crossroads; they can continue to swim into the tide and take one last crack at turning a faltering group of players into serial winners, or they can take their recent humbling at the hands of Osasuna and Real Madrid as a sign that the current model is not working.
Should they, sensibly, opt for the latter, then Xavi may be the man to lead their new era. There can be no compromise between the two, however; it's a jump into the unknown, or continue a steady slide into the footballing abyss.