Al Sadd-bound Xavi the heart of Barca

Andy West 02:53 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.

    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.