x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Xavi is Barcelona's conductor in Champions League final

Barcelona's game is possession and Xavi proved to be their conductor in the 3-1 Champions League victory over Manchester United. Lionel Messi was brilliant, but Xavi no less masterful.

Xavi mesmerized Manchester United defenders.
Xavi mesmerized Manchester United defenders.

Champions League finals tend to be occasions when football's great and good converge, days when eminence is conferred or confirmed.

In short, they are the stuff of legends. Wembley hosted plenty on Saturday but, among midfielders, two acquired an importance for very different reasons.

Xavi's latest passing masterclass was, as ever, a blend of aesthetic and statistics: by completing 124 passes, he managed more than Manchester United's entire quartet in the centre of the pitch. As much as the magnificent Lionel Messi, Xavi defined the occasion.

If United remain unsure how to halt the Argentine, they were equally unable to get to grips with the Catalan. For that reason, and plenty besides, thoughts turned to the television studio, where Roy Keane has found temporary employment as one of the experts.

The ferocious, self-destructive honesty that brought his United career to an abrupt halt came on a never-screened show called Roy Keane Plays The Pundit. Briefly and less controversially, it was a role he reprised.

Comparatively low-profile since his dismissal by Ipswich four months ago, it was a timely return to prominence. Barcelona's emphatic dismissal of United was a match where Sir Alex Ferguson could have benefited from the presence of a younger Keane in either of his incarnations: the dynamic, box-to-box player whose performance in the 1999 semi-final win over Juventus was, the Scot said, the greatest he had seen from one of his players, or the efficient, intelligent anchorman the Irishman evolved into when he aged.

Though four titles and one Champions League in five full seasons since his explosive exit is testament to United's ability to cope, Keane has never been properly replaced. Theirs is a midfield with many attributes and umpteen options, with creators and controllers, workers and wingers, but few actual destroyers. Of those who come closest, Owen Hargreaves' Old Trafford career has been cruelly curtailed by injury while the fact that Darren Fletcher, like Keane, has never taken the field in a Champions League final means they can swap hard-luck stories.

The Scot's stamina and work ethic were missed and, despite a debilitating virus that sidelined him for two months, he should have started. Michael Carrick, the inheritor of Keane's No 16 shirt, tends to find his metier in Europe but in a midfield where United were both outnumbered and outclassed, his may have been an impossible task, as Ferguson's tactics compounded the inherent difficulty of nullifying Xavi.

Indeed, in the last three years in the Champions League, only one side has stopped him picking a path towards goal. That was Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan who, among other things, boasted, in Esteban Cambiasso, a world-class defensive midfielder at the height of his powers.

Valiantly as Fletcher has performed, United have had no bona fide equivalent since Hargreaves' body gave way.

Rather, Ferguson has melded, often intelligently, two or three from Carrick, Fletcher, Anderson, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Darron Gibson, often displaying an ingenuity and an understanding with his pairings to compensate for individual deficiencies.

It is an approach that has brought remarkable rewards, yet while the two veterans have offered contrasting brands of invention, it is hard to argue that United possess one of the world's foremost defensive midfielders. They have gorged on silverware without a Cambiasso, or a Sergio Busquets, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Lassana Diarra, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Nigel de Jong.

Lacking such a player, and by under-policing Xavi's sphere of influence, they made for accommodating opponents, presenting an invitation that Barcelona eagerly accepted.

It is why Ferguson's summer rebuilding job is so sizeable. His brutal omission of Dimitar Berbatov suggests a striking change, while the certain retirement of Edwin van der Sar and the likely retreat of Scholes leave vacancies for a goalkeeper and a creative midfielder.

Above and beyond that, though, is the need to find a footballer who can perform the tasks Hargreaves was supposed to, the search for a player with authority, power and influence. A new Keane.

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Ferguson tends to save some of his most vicious deeds for cup finals, as a string of ditched United players of the past can testify.

The logic for Berbatov's omission from the bench was, the Scot said, that Michael Owen was more likely to get a goal as a substitute.

While the Bulgarian's record as replacement is undistinguished and his inability to score in Europe since 2008 is damning, Owen's achievements this season are so minimal - one anonymous league start and a hapless display in Gary Neville's testimonial - that it seemed a smokescreen.

When the Premier League's joint top scorer cannot command a place among the first 18 players for the Champions League final, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Ferguson will discard him.

United's record signing has long divided opinion, with the manager's praise for the striker's qualities frequently contradicted by his team selection.

Berbatov has often been absent from the team for the major matches, but a place among the reserves had been a constant.

Now, once again, actions have spoken rather louder than words. For all his delectable skill, he may go down in United history as the second Juan Sebastian Veron.

 

sports@thenational.ae