MADRID: Ronald Koeman has been sacked as Barcelona coach after a torrid 14 months, with legendary midfielder Xavi Hernandez the strong favourite to replace him. The 58-year-old Dutchman was dismissed after a 1-0 defeat by Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday left the Spanish giants sitting ninth in La Liga. Barca have won only two of their last seven league games under Koeman, a run that included losing to Real Madrid in Sunday’s Clasico at Camp Nou. A poor start to the season has raised the possibility of the team failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League, which would have enormous consequences for the club’s already dire financial situation. Xavi, who is currently in charge of Qatari club Al Sadd, is considered Koeman’s most likely successor and would be a hugely popular choice with the Barca fans given his glittering playing career there. There is also the belief that the 41-year-old would instil an attractive style similar to the one played by Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo and Ajax’s Erik ten Hag have also been linked with the post but might be reluctant to leave their jobs mid-season. Barcelona B coach Sergi Barjuan could take charge of the first team on an interim basis, with games against Alaves, Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League and Celta Vigo to come before the next international break. A club statement released after midnight Wednesday in Spain confirmed the axing of Koeman, who also previously managed Everton and the Netherlands and had been under fierce pressure. Heavy debt: Koeman spent six years at Barcelona as a player and is considered a club legend after scoring the winning goal in the 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria. He was appointed coach by Barca’s previous president Josep Maria Bartomeu in August 2020 and enjoyed some success in his first season, winning the Copa del Rey and bringing a disillusioned Lionel Messi back onside. But a disappointing finish in La Liga and a convincing defeat by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League last 16 cast doubt over Koeman’s ability to navigate the biggest games, a criticism that was aimed at him again last weekend following the loss to Real Madrid. Laporta was re-elected as president in March and while he allowed Koeman to continue as coach, there was never much trust between the pair. Laporta told Koeman in the summer he wanted two weeks to look for a replacement while Koeman reacted badly last month to Laporta suggesting coaches do not have all the power. No replacement was found or could be persuaded to take over, perhaps in part because of Barcelona’s perilous financial problems. The club is 1.35 billion euros in debt and had to watch Messi join PSG in August after failing to renew the Argentine’s contract. Other key players like Antoine Griezmann also departed without being adequately replaced as Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay both arrived on free transfers and Luuk de Jong came from Sevilla on loan. Youngsters like Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez, Sergino Dest and Ronald Araujo have all benefited from Koeman’s faith, but more established players have suffered a drop in form. Koeman’s honest approach was largely accepted and even appreciated last season, but his downbeat assessment of his squad this term was seen by many as counter-productive and not befitting of a Barcelona coach.