Al Sadd-bound Xavi the heart of Barca

Andy West 21/05/2015
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Iconic: Xavi.

When Xavi Hernandez steps onto the Nou Camp turf for Barcelona’s meeting with Deportivo La Coruna on Saturday, it will be the final league appearance for the most important player in the club’s history.

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With the likes of Lionel Messi, Johan Cruyff and 1950s legend Laszlo Kubala for company, being regarded as the greatest of them all is no mean feat.

The statistics, however, speak for themselves. Last weekend’s La Liga’s title triumph gave Xavi the 23rd trophy of his club career – a haul which includes eight Spanish championships and three Champions League crowns. During that period, he has 764 appearances in the Blaugrana colours, beating the next best on the list – his great friend Carles Puyol – by more than 150.

Xavi’s importance is not measured by numbers alone, however, because his biggest contribution was serving as the basis for the short-passing game which became synonymous with Barca. Nobody epitomised their tactical approach more than Xavi, whose peerless ball distribution skills, stamina and game awareness made ‘tiki-taka’ possible.

Messi, of course, has dominated the headlines during their time together, and the Argentine is the cherry on Barca’s cake (perhaps the sweetest, most delectable cherry ever tasted). But the cake itself was Xavi: he was the foundation upon which everything else rested.

Without him to set the tempo and run the show, the whole thing would have risked disintegrating into chaotic, unstructured crumbs.

We have seen exactly that happen, in fact, during his recent decline, and it could be said that the effective end of Xavi’s Barcelona career came two years ago when he was powerless to prevent a 7-0 aggregate thrashing by Bayern Munich in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals.

Even then, it was apparent Xavi’s legs could no longer carry him as they used to, removing his ability to dictate a game and making him increasingly a defensive liability.

It is notable, indeed, that he has only been picked to start one major game this season: the Clasico league trip to Real Madrid, which Barca comprehensively lost 3-1 after, tellingly, being overrun in midfield.

Xavi’s time as a truly great player, therefore, is long past and Ivan Rakitic’s fundamental role in this season’s successes demonstrate that the team has already left him behind. But it would be churlish to focus too much on the last two years when we should be remembering the previous 15.

Re-watching Barca’s Champions League final win over Manchester United in 2011 is the perfect reminder of just how good Xavi was.

He was the absolute master of that encounter, making 148 passes – more than the entire United midfield combined. The other 21 players on the pitch often appeared to be little more than inanimate puppets, controlled by the great string-master in the No 6 shirt.

The goals might have been scored by others (Pedro, Messi and David Villa), but Xavi was the true motoring force.

His Barca career is nearly over, but not before he has two more chances to add more silverware to his glittering collection. And Xavi only needs one of those to overtake Real Madrid legend Gento as the most-decorated player in Spanish football history.

When that happens, as it surely will, nobody should begrudge him.

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Jordi Alba credits Barcelona belief for La Liga title glory

Andy West 19/05/2015
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Alba (c) celebrates with his Barca teammates.

Jordi Alba is taking added satisfaction from proving Barcelona’s doubters wrong following the Blaugrana’s 23rd league title success.

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The Catalan club secured their fifth league triumph in the last seven seasons by winning 1-0 at previous champions Atletico Madrid on Sunday, maintaining their four point advantage over second-placed Real Madrid with just one game remaining.

The success has been fuelled by a run of 18 wins, one draw and just one defeat in their last 20 league games, with Barca now unbeaten away from home in La Liga since their first game of the calendar year against Real Sociedad.

That defeat at the Anoeta sparked a flurry of criticism for manager Luis Enrique amid reports that he had suffered a bitter falling-out with star player Lionel Messi.

Barca bounced back immediately, however, with Messi starring in a 3-1 home win over Atletico which ultimately proved to be the great turning point in their season.

Reflecting on the criticism they faced earlier in the campaign, Spanish international left-back Alba said: “Everyone had given up on us for dead but we have enjoyed a magnificent season.”

He also believed the spirit within the dressing room has played a key role in the team’s success, adding: “I couldn’t be happier. The atmosphere is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in my career.

“It is something to enjoy, and to remember that it has been a huge effort from the team.”

With two cup finals coming up in the next three weeks, though, Alba is aware that his team-mates cannot spend too long congratulating each other just yet.

Barca face Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final at the Nou Camp on Saturday, May 30 and then face Juventus for the Champions League crown in Berlin a week later, and Alba added: “I hope this is just the start. Winning La Liga is something to enjoy but we have two more finals left.”

Manager Enrique, meanwhile, has cautioned goalkeeper Claudio Bravo not to let his guard down even though he has almost certainly played his last game of the season.

The Chilean goalkeeper, who arrived last summer from Real Sociedad, completed an excellent season by keeping his 23rd clean sheet in La Liga to help secure Sunday’s victory over Atletico.

But Enrique has employed a goalkeeping rotation policy throughout the season, with Bravo only playing in the league while fellow summer arrival Marc-Andre ter Stegen is preferred in cup competitions.

The 23-year-old German is therefore in line to play against Athletic and Juventus, but Enrique does not want to see Bravo allowing his standards to slip.

“The season has not ended for any of us,” the Barca boss said. “Everyone is important and everyone will enjoy what’s left. The season doesn’t end just because you are not in the starting line-up.”

Enrique also reserved words of praise for winger Pedro, who has endured a frustrating campaign after largely being left on the bench but has played a bigger role in recent weeks.

The forward scored a spectacular goal to secure victory over Real Sociedad last weekend and, with Luis Suarez injured, played the pass for Messi to score the title-clincher at Atletico on Sunday.

“Pedro’s had a sensational season,” insisted Enrique, “He has trained hard all the way through.”

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#360debate: Should Gareth Bale leave Real Madrid this summer?

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Under pressure: Bale.

Having been flying high last summer after helping Real Madrid to a tenth European Cup title, the 2014-15 season has been something of a come-down for Wales star Gareth Bale.

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While his statistics are impressive, scoring 13 and assisting nine in La Liga alone, his performances have been questioned by both the club’s support and the Spanish media. As Real’s season has flatered of late, so the scrutiny has grown.

Bale need not dispair, though. He is a man in demand in England according to the newspapers. Given that speculation, it is unclear whether he will choose to stay and fight for his place among Real’s Galacticos next season.

Our #360debate today is: Should Gareth Bale leave Real Madrid this summer?

James Piercy, Deputy Editor, thinks YES.

I would love Gareth Bale to remain in the Spanish capital and prove his growing number of doubters wrong but his position and his role in the team is becoming unworkable.

It’s increasingly apparent that neither is he trusted by his team-mates – most notably Cristiano Ronaldo – nor does he feel confident enough to try and change their opinion.

His displays against Juventus were meek in the extreme. There was a greater belief in the second leg as he, unlike Ronaldo, didn’t hide and tried to force the issues to an extent. However, the quality was desperately lacking and it was wayward effort after wayward effort, the desperation and despair obvious.

It’s been a strange turn of events. After such an encouraging debut campaign at the Bernabeu, amid such pressure, he has gone backwards.

The issue can’t be a tactical or a technical one because Madrid’s counter-attacking style perfectly suits his powerful, direct game. In theory, him and Ronaldo either side of a No 9 should work perfectly but Bale’s best attributes are becoming masked by his discomfort and uncertainty in his role.

Granted he’s not the only guilty party and Madrid have been pretty average since January, but then again he’s been in a position to show he can triumph in adversity – and gain currency among the Madridistas – and has failed on that front.

While not speaking Spanish in his first season was accepted, to still have a language barrier almost two years after his move is clearly proving a problem. 

The comparisons between Steve McManaman and Michael Owen have been rightfully raised. The former learned Spanish, immersed himself in the city and its culture and thrived; the latter lived in a hotel and was soon on his way home.

After a year away, Owen’s stock remained high in England and the same is the case of Bale who has a ready-made exit in the form of United.

At Old Trafford, or even the Etihad or Stamford Bridge, should a bidding war develop – with Madrid likely recouping a considerable fee – he would be a star again, in a league we all know he has excelled in before.

Matt Monaghan, Reporter, thinks NO.

The phrase ‘biggest club in the world’ is banded around with impunity. But when it comes to Real Madrid, those words do not ring hollow.

If Gareth Bale was to end his Spanish adventure this summer, the only way would be down. It would not matter if another world record transfer fee and the kudos it carries was banked to send him to Premier League giants Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea. The same conclusion would be inevitable.

Pressure appears to be slowly building to push the Wales forward away from the Bernabeu. This must be resisted. 

Despite the sniping, only two more La Liga goals are needed for him to match the tally of 15 from his debut campaign. Similarly, only three more assists are required.

These are not disastrous numbers, when taken on their own. Yet when compared to monstrous team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, they look paltry.

Rather than cower in the Portuguese’s shadow, this should be seen as a challenge for 2015/16. If Bale can push for the Bernabeu crown, this would create an incredible legacy.

His electrifying final campaign at Tottenham Hotspur proved he has the ability to get there. An unstoppable wave was created which took him all the way to Real, with 21 often stupifying strikes being scored.

Friend or foe: With Ronaldo (l). 

Short memories make it seem such feats ended when he left north London. His winning goal in April 2014’s Copa del Rey final against Barcelona was one of the most incredible conjured in the competition’s history, surging past leaden-footed right-back Marc Bartra before finishing with aplomb.

Such freedom and expression has eluded him in 2014/15. But for someone of his talent and youth at 25, it can return.

Players are written off all too soon at Real. Fellow Briton David Beckham can testify to that. Blacklisted by then head coach Fabio Capello and forgotten by many halfway through the 2006/07 season, he stormed back into the reckoning to propel Los Blancos to the title.

Bale has all the ability and desire to make history repeat itself in 2015/16.

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