When Andrea Pirlo and Xavi face each other for the last time at the Champions League final on Saturday, there will be more than a European Cup title at stake.
The pre-match hype may be focused on how Juventus, appearing in their first final since losing to AC Milan in 2003, will put the brakes on the seemingly unstoppable Lionel Messi.
But Barca midfielder Andres Iniesta believes fans around the world could be in for a treat as Pirlo and Xavi bid to steer their respective teams to Champions League glory.
“It will be nice that these two references in world football come face to face with each other,” said Iniesta.
“For people that watch football, to watch Pirlo is synonymous with good football. Given his career, his way of playing, the importance of his role in the play, Pirlo is a reference for any player.”
Iniesta – and likely the large majority of Barcelona fans – believe “Xavi is the number one” player in the world in his position. As far as midfielders go, they certainly don’t get any better than Pirlo or Xavi.
Boasting a quiet composure that allows them to confidently dictate play, their vision, ball control and ability to find teammates with pinpoint passes that help create goals and win games, titles and trophies is legendary.
Xavi is Barcelona through and through, joining the Catalan club’s prestigious La Masia youth set-up at 11 and going on to win eight La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies and becoming an integral part of the Spain team that won the 2010 World Cup and the past two European Championships.
Pirlo’s curriculum vitae may be only slightly less plentiful, but the 36-year-old’s feats have come in spite of a comparatively bumpier ride through Italy’s Serie A.
It was at Serie B side Brescia that Pirlo’s talents came to the attention of coach Carlo Mazzone, who promptly threw Pirlo into the deep-lying midfield role in front of the defence.
Following three, largely fruitless spells at city rivals Inter Milan, it was a position he honed under Carlo Ancelotti after moving to AC Milan, where Pirlo’s legendary free kick skills flourished.
With AC Milan, Pirlo won league titles in 2004 and 2011 as well as two Champions League titles in 2003 and 2007, having also been part of the Milan team stunned by Liverpool in the 2005 final in Istanbul after the Italian club had raced to a 3-0 half-time lead.
Pirlo’s last season at Milan, under his present coach at Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri, saw the midfielder start only 17 games, however. To Milan’s eventual dismay, he left the club by mutual consent and, amazingly, for free.
“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: “God exists”,” said Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
“A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century.”
It is perhaps no coincidence the Turin giants have been virtually unstoppable on the domestic front since Pirlo’s arrival in the summer of 2011.
He has since helped Juve to four successive league titles, three of which came under former coach Antonio Conte and the last under Allegri, who let him walk out of the San Siro four years ago.
Playing alongside Chilean international Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio, Pirlo hit the net three times in his first season with Juve but it was other statistics that showed his true worth.
He made a league-leading 13 assists, and completed 2643 passes – an 87 per cent completion rate. The only player in the world to have completed more passes than Pirlo in 2011/2012 was Xavi.
“He’s a champion,” Pirlo said of the Spaniard on Monday. “I’ve had the chance to play against him several times. Off the pitch he’s a great man and as great champion on it.”
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