The swansong of a giant
“Barça’s former goalkeeper has won every imaginable trophy with the team in his 12-year tenure as head coach.”
The description on Xavi Pascual’s profile page on Barça’s website says it all. The former goalkeeper, born and bred in Barcelona, became a coach that wrote history in ‘Blaugrana’, securing 60 trophies, including the EHF Champions League Men title twice, in 2011 and 2015.
But every beautiful thing, every longstanding relationship, ultimately reaches its conclusion, and Pascual will soon leave his beloved team after 12 years.
The caveat? His hope is to finish on a high, with the third EHF Champions League Men trophy and the 61st in his career as Barça’s coach.
We have learnt a lot over the past editions of the EHF FINAL4. We learnt from the wins; we learnt from the losses. You must never think that a game is won until the final whistle.
A constant presence at the EHF FINAL4
“Being in Cologne for the EHF FINAL4 again is an outstanding achievement. I will not be really emotional about it — we will be going for the win and trying to take the trophy home once again,” says Pascual.
“We are humbled by being here once again. It is a very important objective for the club. Winning it will be difficult, as every time we have been there, but we will be going for it this time again.”
As the EHF FINAL4 was first introduced in the 2009/10 season, Pascual has been Barça’s coach in every season in the current format of the premium European competition. No other side has qualified for Cologne more than the Spanish powerhouse.
In fact, Barça have an outstanding record of taking part in nine of the 12 editions of the business end of the EHF Champions League Men — a superb 75 per cent hit rate of their objective each season.
The Spanish giants played five finals in Cologne – two won and three lost – but the ever-ambitious Pascual wants more every time.
“Playing in the EHF FINAL4 is very important both for me and for my players. It is easy [to explain]: it is the most important event in European handball, therefore, everybody wants to win. The motivation is big, because you are playing against the other top three European clubs, so it is a very tough ask,” says the 53-year-old coach.
While these might be his last games as Barça’s coach, before departing for Romanian champions Dinamo Bucuresti, Pascual is upbeat. His only objective? Winning the trophy.
“This is not the first and not the last EHF FINAL4 for me. So, I will be just focusing on winning and trying to prepare my team to be at its best,” said Pascual.
The first unbeaten season?
But do really Barça need any preparation for the EHF FINAL4? Their results say they do not, as they have swept their opponents in all competitions this season.
The Spanish giants embarked on an otherworldly 18-game winning streak this season in the premium European competition, with an average margin of 7.83 goals in their favour per game.
In the knockout phases of the EHF Champions League Men, Barça beat Elverum Handball in the play-offs with a 32-goal aggregate margin, 76:44, while in the quarter-finals, the Spanish side had little trouble against Meshkov Brest, securing a 73:57 aggregate win.
Yet did Barça forget to lose?
“No, there is no such thing,” argues Pascual. “We lost last season’s final against THW Kiel in December, so the thought of it is still fresh in our memories. We learn a lot from this defeat.”
Still, Barça could become the first-ever team of the modern era to secure the trophy by winning all their games — a remarkable achievement if it were to happen.
With plenty of powerhouses at the start of the competition, Barça’s antics might be even more of a statement, in arguably the toughest ever season in the premium European competition.
If you win the trophy by winning all games, what more can you say?
A worthy opponent for the swansong
Still, there are two more games in Pascual’s tenure as Barça coach and those will be the toughest ones this season.
Pascual knows a thing or two about HBC Nantes, Barça’s opponents in the semi-final. The sides met twice this season, with Barça winning both games, 30:29 at home and 35:27 in France, yet Nantes are still the ones to watch — the true underdogs of the EHF FINAL4.
Eliminating Lomza Vive Kielce and Telekom Veszprém HC in the last two rounds is surely an achievement worthy of a title contender and Nantes have one ace up their sleeve: coach Alberto Entrerrios.
Entrerrios played for Barça for one season, in 2001/02, before moving to rivals Ciudad Real, and is the brother of Barça’s captain.
“We have learnt a lot over the past editions of the EHF FINAL4. We learnt from the wins; we learnt from the losses. You must never think that a game is won until the final whistle.
“This is why we will focus hard on this game. I know there are no favourites in such a game — we learnt this the hard way — so Nantes are not a team to be treated easily,” concludes Pascual.
While the Spanish ace might not tie Talant Dujshebaev’s record of four EHF Champions League Men wins — three with Ciudad Real and one with Lomza Vive Kielce — Pascual can still become only the second coach to win three trophies with the same team.
The records do not motivate him, only winning does. But win or lose in Cologne, Pascual’s legacy will be untarnished and his importance never understated at Barça.
But a motivated and focused Pascual found the best moment for a tongue-in-cheek remark, just before going to the daily training session at Barça — one of his last in his capacity:
“Man, if you win the trophy by winning all games, what more can you say?”
Indeed, it would be the once-in-a-lifetime perfect season.