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Xavi’s Wembley tears turn to triumph

May 30, 2011

In our latest post on Spanish soccer, Iain Rogers in Madrid muses on the brilliance of the peerless Xavi and Real Madrid’s decision to hand more power to coach Jose Mourinho at the expense of sacked director general Jorge Valdano. 

Xavi’s Wembley tears turn to triumph

Lionel Messi rightly grabbed most of the headlines for his latest European masterclass in Barcelona’s 3-1 Champions League final humbling of Manchester United on Saturday.

However, the Argentine World Player of the Year’s superbly-struck goal, his 53rd of the season in all competitions, and his all-round brilliance distracted attention from the man who has been at the heart of the phenomenal success achieved by Barca and Spain in recent years: Xavi.

Regularly nailing more than 100 passes per game, with a completion rate in excess of 90 percent, the 31-year-old has perfected the playmaker’s art.

United were powerless to prevent him seizing control of the match as he sprayed the ball left and right, twisting and turning his way into space and leaving the English club’s players chasing shadows across the immaculate Wembley turf.

One amazing statistic from this year’s edition of Europe’s elite club competition, courtesy of Opta, is that in 953 minutes of football he did not concede a single foul.

A product of Barca’s famed “La Masia” youth school along with six other members of the starting 11, Xavi was 12 years old when Barca won their first European Cup at the same venue in 1992.

His father, Joaquim Hernandez, told Don Balon magazine recently that his son wept bitter tears when he was told he could not travel to London to attend the game with his two elder brothers and had to watch at home with his parents.

His triumphant trip this week to the British capital, nearly two decades later, gave soccer fans of all stripes the world over a rare treat.

One of Xavi’s predecessors in the centre of Barca’s midfield, Pep Guardiola, is now the club’s coach and the 2011 Champions League was, incredibly, his 10th trophy in his first three seasons since stepping up from the post of B-team manager at the end of the 2007/08 campaign.

Guardiola would readily admit that he never reached the heights that Xavi has scaled and it will be a near-impossible task for the Catalan club to find a replacement when he retires, perhaps in three or four years.

Mourinho 1 Valdano 0

It had been in the cards for a while but when it finally came last week the decision by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez to dump director general Jorge Valdano still came as something of a shock.

The move was a significant victory for coach Jose Mourinho, handing him almost complete control in a manner unusual for Spanish clubs and more akin to the set-up on his former stomping ground in the English Premier League.

The outspoken Portuguese fell out with Valdano soon after his arrival from Inter Milan at the end of the 2009/10 season and was reportedly harbouring a grudge over a critical newspaper column the Argentine wrote several years ago.

Whatever the background, Perez, never previously one to show much faith in his coaches, has now risked all the family silver on Mourinho being able to end Barca’s three-year reign as Spanish champions and secure a 10th European crown.

There is no reason to think Mourinho will fail given the resources at his disposal, but should the wait for more trophies extend beyond next season then questions will be asked about Perez’s latest strategy.

He was hounded out of the presidency in 2006 when his tactic of filling the squad with expensive “galacticos” ran out of steam.

If he fails again, or if Mourinho gets fed up and jumps ship back to the Premier League or Serie A, it’s hard to see where next he can turn.

It’s difficult not to feel sorry for Valdano, a suave, eloquent man who played for and coached Real and was a World Cup winner with Diego Maradona in 1986.

“I have always respected Real Madrid and I never turned the club into a battlefield,” he told a farewell news conference on Wednesday at the Bernabeu after his job was effectively eliminated at an earlier meeting of the board of directors.

“All my efforts this season were directed toward restraint,” he added.

“It has been a long time since I have spoken personally to Mourinho. We greet each other politely, but he sought to deal with people other than me.

“My responsibilities with the first team were reduced. I did not feel comfortable in that situation.”

PHOTO: Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia (R) challenges Barcelona’s Xavi during the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium in London May 28, 2011. REUTERS/Phil Noble.

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