Without Xavi, they might not be
Barça are the best side in the world and Messi is the best player on the planet.
They could not have been more wrong, even if they frequently are. That much was again shown by the clásico on Saturday night. It was billed as a title decider and as Messi versus Ronaldo. But while the same picture – Messi, fists clenched in celebration; Ronaldo, head down, shirt drawn sadly towards his face – occupied the covers of both Madrid sports dailies, in the aftermath of the match it was Xavi that most people were raving about. "Xavi's eye decides the league," said Marca; "Xavi," added Público, "hands down the sentence." While Messi and Pedro got the goals, Xavi gave them, with two wonderful assists: the first, a beautifully clipped first-time ball; the second, a perfectly weighted through ball. It was his sixth assist in two trips to the Bernabéu. And just in case anyone missed them – the Madrid defence, for example – he reproduced both assists, only for Casillas to save from Messi.
Last season Xavi provided more assists than anyone else in La Liga; this season, only five players (Alves and Messi among them) have given more. But it is not only about assists. The clásico was no classic. It was built up as the match of the millennium but wasn't – unless the next 990 years really are going to be rubbish. The ball was in play for less than half of the 90 minutes, there was a foul every 180 seconds, and there was little of the stunning brilliance of last season's 6-2. But in its own way it was just as painful for Madrid, and in its own way Barcelona were still impressive. They might not have torn Madrid apart, but they did control them – certainly once they had ridden out the opening storm. "The best team won," said the cover of AS simply. The concern for Madrid, argued editor Alfredo Relaño, was that "Barcelona passed by the Bernabéu without even looking nervous, winning without expending energy." "Barcelona are a better team than us," shrugged Pellegrini.
This was not the Barcelona that amazes. It was, though, the Barcelona that anaesthetises. Moving the ball around, controlling the game, avoiding Madrid's lunges, frustrating them, exasperating them. This time, in short, it was as much Xavi's Barcelona as Messi's.
Xavi is, says the Sporting coach Manolo Preciado, "the personification of simplicity". He is also the personification of Barcelona. Even when the passes are not telling, they are fundamental. Maintaining possession, using the ball quickly and accurately, is the key: Xavi completed twice as many passes as any Madrid player. "Xavi," said El Mundo Deportivo, "was gregarious, majestic, an exhibition, his football was a recital that never ends." In Marca, Miguel Serrano described him as "an extraterrestrial": "He ordered, he played, he directed, he slowed it down and sped it up. Every time he touched the ball, the very foundations of the Bernabéu wobbled." "He read the game like no one else. He carved out space, moved cleverly, and built football," said El País. "As always."
Well, quite. Everything Barcelona do is based on possession. Even defending. Even resting. As one of Guardiola's closest collaborators says: "Barcelona are the only team that can take a break in possession." "Receive, pass, offer," is the simple message, the obsession, a badge of identity that they insist runs right through the club, driven into players from the moment they join. Xavi joined in 1991 and no one represents that obsession better than him. "I am basically a passer," he says. Guardiola calls him maquí, the machine. The late commentator Andres Montes used to call him Humphrey Bogart because, like Sam in Casablanca, he was asked to play it again. And again. And again. And again.
Last season, Xavi completed almost 100 passes at the Bernabéu. Last week, he completed more than all of Arsenal's midfielders put together. This season he has made over 400 passes more than any player in Spain; in the Champions League, he is 400 passes ahead of anyone from any other club. Even his own team-mates are 300 behind. As Alex Ferguson joked: "I'm sure I saw him give the ball away once."
"I need team-mates, people to combine with," Xavi says. "Without team-mates football has no meaning. I am no one if they don't make themselves available." But it is not just that he sees the movement first, it is that he often sees the movement before it has happened, that rather than passing to the movement, he passes in such a way as to oblige the movement. He makes players' runs for them. "Xavi plays in the future," says Dani Alves. Coaches at Barcelona privately admit that sometimes he moves into areas that he should not – but that his technique is so good, his passing so precise, that ultimately it ends up looking like the right thing to do. Then there's the commitment. Xavi is a football anorak that can wax lyrical on Matt Le Tissier and Paul Scholes, he looks after himself and there's not a trace of arrogance. "When he has a day off, he goes and picks setas [mushrooms] in the countryside," reveals Guardiola, "and someone who picks mushrooms can't be a bad bloke."
At the Under-20 World Cup, the Spanish Football Federation presented a formal complaint after Seydou Keita was named the tournament's best player ahead of Xavi. But, despite having made his debut under Louis van Gaal in 1998, he has not always had such a telling impact on Barcelona's game. So much so that he admits to thinking about walking away, with Manchester United, Milan and Madrid among those that approached him. The arrival of Frank Rijkaard and Edgar Davids in 2003 changed his future, giving him protection, a competitive colleague and freedom to step forward – away from the deep lying midfield position. It was a liberation. A revelation.
It is no coincidence that Xavi is the man imposing the style on both the finest national team and arguably the finest club side Spain has ever had. When Xabi Alonso returned from training with Spain for the first time, he could not get over his midfield namesake. At Euro 2008, Xavi was named player of the tournament (although, personally, this column would have been tempted to go for Marcos Senna), completed over 100 passes in the semi-final when Russia didn't even see the ball and provided the assist to Torres in the final.
When the inevitable question is asked about why Messi has not played as well for Argentina over the past year as he has for Barcelona, it is tempting to give a one word answer: Xavi. The last week has reinforced the belief that Barcelona are the best side in the world and that Messi is the best player on the planet. Without Xavi, they might not be.
Week 31 talking points
• In a match packed with plots and sub plots (or pub splots, as one TV presenter previewing el clásico put it), Xavi's not the only thing they're talking about, of course. Nor even was Messi being better than Ronaldo, although AS's mad Madridista Tomás Roncero admitted he'd have to have a "serious word" with the Portuguese forward. In Catalunya they'd come over all self-righteous: it had been a victory for cantera over cartera, youth system against wallet, according to El Mundo Deportivo. Barcelona began the match with seven products of La Masía; Ronaldo alone cost more than double what Barcelona's starting XI did. Meanwhile, utterly, utterly inevitably, Marca attacked Pellegrini. Just as it has done all season. "Hey presto! The lie that is Pellegrini comes to an end," screeched the cover. Then there was the debate over which galácticos to sign next – because that's worked so well so far.
Nor was Xavi the only impressive performer in the Barcelona side. Next time he puts on a wash, Piqué will find Ronaldo tumbling on to the floor as he turns out his pockets. Valdés mostly made easy saves but did deny Van der Vaart to show that right now he's probably the best goalkeeper in Spain. And after the match Pep Guardiola turned all concerned parent to insist: "It's time we had a serious talk about this boy" following Pedro's superbly taken goal.
Messi's goal came immediately after he had been knocked on the floor. He got up, got moving, played a one-two and scored. From getting creamed to getting the opener, barely 20 seconds had passed. There's a lesson in there somewhere. And, by the way, there are still seven games left …
• Believe it or not there were some other games this weekend – as one first division player, tongue in cheek, desperately tried to remind his followers on Twitter. El País did not bother with match reports for most of them but fear not for this column can tell you what happened. Well, some of it anyway …
• Mind you, you were best off not watching Málaga v Sevilla which, like most Málaga games, was an absolute travesty of a football match, packed with fouling, cheating, whingeing, moaning and dreadful goalkeeping. The best moment came when Andres Palop decided to swing on the crossbar and got his studs caught on the net, falling flat on his backside like a total tool. Sevilla's win really mattered too, because Mallorca beat Valencia 3-2 on Sunday for their 13th home win of the season. Both are on 51 points as they fight for the final Champions League place.
• Xerez's Mario Bermejo had to be held back by police as he shouted "Retard! Retard! Yes, you, Miku, bloody Miku, bollocks you! Retard!" at the Getafe striker after he had "shown a lack of respect" over Xerez's plight at the foot of the table. Bermejo didn't do it on the pitch or in the tunnel, but in the press area, handily meaning that the whole thing was caught on camera.
• Wind-up merchant Javier Clemente is back as a coach, taking charge of Valladolid after they sacked Onésimo in midweek. He couldn't win but he did manage to get the result that his detractors believe he likes best – a 0-0 draw.
• And forget Leo Messi, the goal of the week, possibly even the goal of the season, was scored by Javi Martínez for Athletic Bilbao against Almería. Awesome.