Goal.com 50: Xavi (3)

Goal.com's countdown of the best players from last season has reached its top three, with Barcelona's stylish midfielder on the podium following another brilliant year in 2010-11
Welcome to the Goal.com 50! In this special series, Goal.com editors worldwide vote for the top 50 players of 2010-11. We count down to the announcement of the winner on August 22 with profiles of each and every player who made it into the top 50...

It was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Xavi. Having lost at home to promoted side Hercules back in September, Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola admitted that, from then on, the midfield maestro may not be able to play every week; that his role could be reduced.

Xavi had been missing with an Achilles problem and the prognosis wasn’t promising. Even when he returned, the midfielder appeared short of fitness and below his brilliant best as Barca stumbled unconvingingly past lower-level rivals. Catalans were concerned and the club's attempts to sign Cesc Fabregas suddenly seemed vindicated.

"From the first moment I saw him play, I knew he would become the brain behind Barcelona for many years to come. He plays much better than I ever did at my best."

- Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola

Almost a year has passed since then, Cesc has arrived and before his move, many Barca fans were singing a different tune, believing his signing to be unnecessary. Part of that was down to the exceptional emergence of Thiago Alcantara as a long-term heir to the midfielder master. Mostly, however, it had to do with Xavi’s sensational season upon recovering from injury.

In the end, fears of a premature parting of Barca’s pass-master were allayed as the midfielder racked up a half-century of games in 2010-11, just as he had done in the previous four campaigns. And he was instrumental – as usual – in Barcelona’s run to a third consecutive La Liga title and second Champions League victory in three years.

Just a few weeks after being written off as a has-been, Xavi produced a masterclass in midfield to humiliate his club's biggest rivals with an historic performance and result - the worst of Jose Mourinho's career - and opened the scoring with a great volley as well.

Xavi accumulated assists and goals last season, with 10 and 5, respectively, but stats barely begin to tell the story. The 31-year-old is the pulse, the pivot and the pendulum for the Catalan club – and with him in the side, results usually swing in their favour.

More than a player in the pretty possession play for Pep’s perfectionists, he is the protagonist, the puller of strings in the plot for power and prestige: the prince of La Masia, of Camp Nou, of Barcelona. Take out Lionel Messi and you still have the core of side crowned champions of the world with Spain in 2010. Remove Xavi and you lose leadership, direction, heart and soul.

He isn’t fast, is not a prolific goalscorer, nor is he a dynamic dribbler. But the midfielder's value to this team is unquestionable. Give the ball to Xavi and not only will he keep onto it, he will turn it into something better, handing it back to you or a better-placed team-mate – with interest. Return; reuse; recycle.

It seems inconceivable now, but Xavi almost left Camp Nou in the late 1990s as he felt he would never be good enough to replace Guardiola, then the darling of the Catalans’ centre-field. Guardiola was an exceptional exponent of his craft, and scandalously underrated internationally, yet Xavi is even better, which says much for La Masia and the evolution of excellence at Barca’s astonishing academy.

Xavi plays the Barca way: he is one of a long line of ball-playing central midfielders which includes coach Guardiola and team-mates Cesc, Andres Iniesta and Thiago, as well as the now-retired Ivan de la Pena. "I pass and I move, I help you, I look for you, I stop, I raise my head, I look and, above all, I open up the pitch. The one who has the ball, is the master of the game," he described in an interview last year. It sums up both his and Barca's playing philosophy perfectly.

"More than a player in the pretty possession play of Pep's perfectionists, the puller of strings in the plot for power and prestige: the prince of La Masia, of Camp Nou, of Barcelona."

Cesc's arrival will no doubt allow the midfield master to rest and recuperate, conserving his energies for Barca’s biggest battles. The younger man is not a replacement for his club and international colleague, however - at least not yet. “I’m not here to retire Xavi,” said Fabregas. “He still has a good few years left – he’s just amazing.” And he really is. So with another three years, plus the option of two more, still remaining on the Catalan’s contract, it clearly isn’t the beginning of the end for Xavi, as fans feared last September. It’s just the end of the beginning.

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