x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hleb is back at the forefront in Champions League

Belarusian finds home comforts as Borisov captain after many years of travels.

Borisov captain Hleb has been leading by example.
Borisov captain Hleb has been leading by example.

Elite football has many ways of bringing a man sharply down to earth. Sometimes it is via the wise advice of colleagues.

When Alexander Hleb secured the dream transfer of his much-travelled career, from Arsenal to Barcelona in the summer of 2008, he was invited with the rest of the squad to select a car from the club's sponsors.

He pointed to the biggest, most bling model. Not a good idea, cautioned a senior Barca player, adding: "If you drive around in that, our fans will think you are flashy and arrogant."

Hleb had an unhappy time at a Barcelona who were about to embark on a phase of unprecedented success.

Injuries eroded his confidence, stalled his momentum and he was slow to adjust to the pass-and-move routines of an attacking midfield which he, with his fine technique and vision, ought to have complemented.

He went out on loan, to Birmingham City, then to Wolfsburg. In English football, with Arsenal, he had earned a reputation as an elegant, creative player; with Stuttgart, in his early teens, he had dazzled the Bundesliga. His second stints in England and Germany would both be less prosperous than his first ones.

Hleb is 31 and has gone back to his roots. The Belarusian joined BATE Borisov last summer, after six months with Krylia Sovetov Samara in Russia and says he feels fit, and happy to be home.

Borisov were his first senior club, although in those days, the late 1990s, a talent like Hleb was bound to look abroad if he wanted to play in the Champions League.

But the Borisov he has returned to are becoming a regular fixture in the competition. This is their third adventure in the group phase, and Hleb was delighted with how it began.

He played an important role, prompting from deep their swift counterattacks in the 3-1 away win at Lille in France.

Bayern Munich, last season's Champions League finalists and the winners against Valencia two weeks ago, are in Belarus tonight to renew acquaintance with a footballer they once coveted.

Bayern showed interest in signing Hleb when he seemed marginalised at Barcelona; so did Inter Milan. There is plenty of respect across the upper echelons of European club football for the blond, wispy Belarus captain.

There is also a growing wariness of what his current team might achieve.

Hleb last month set a target for Borisov of more than two points from the group stage. They have reached that already.

"We want to show we are up to playing at this level," he told reporters. "It is a hard group and although we are top now, we are long way from being favourites to go through."

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