Champions League

Arthur earns Spurs on Xavi's greatest stage

 • by Ryan Baldi
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Forty per cent of Barcelona’s Champions League triumphs have been sealed on Wembley’s hallowed turf – the first at the old stadium in 1992, then again under the arch in 2011.

On Wednesday night, Barça returned to the stage of their first and greatest European successes to take on Tottenham Hotspur, with captain Lionel Messi glowing typically ethereally in a 4-2 win.

But the world’s greatest player was not the only Barcelona star glistening under the Wembley floodlights.

Brazilian playmaker Arthur was signed from Grêmio over the summer in a deal which had been mooted for the best part of a year. The 22-year-old has supposedly been earmarked to reintroduce the kind of control and mastery of tempo seen less frequently at the Camp Nou since Xavi’s 2015 departure.

While Arthur has a long (long) way to go before he can be considered for comparison with the 2010 World Cup winner, one of the finest conductor’s in the game’s history, there were echoes of Xavi in his display against Spurs.

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He also did so at the scene of Xavi’s greatest performance. In the Champions League final of 2011, in which Barça toyed with Manchester United on their way to a dominant 3-1 victory, the midfielder completed a staggering 148 passes – including an assist for Pedro’s opener – at a 95 per cent completion rate.

On that night, Xavi bent the game to his will. He deliberately slowed the tempo of Barcelona’s play, luring Sir Alex Ferguson’s side into a false sense of security, allowing them to feel they were worthy of their billing alongside this great Barça team, before then turning up the volume of Pep Guardiola’s symphony, sending red heads spinning in a whirl of pace, precision and geometry.

It would be hyperbole of the most unbearable degree to suggest Arthur’s performance versus Spurs was anywhere near as dominant or breathtaking as Xavi’s against United; only Messi, scorer of two and orchestrator of another, was on such a level.

But Arthur showed both an encouraging ability to control the tempo dial in a manner Xavi would approve of, slowing down and speeding up his team’s play in accordance with the demands of the game at any specific juncture.

He was also more than willing to receive possession under pressure, never allowing a Tottenham player to get a clean sight of the ball. Mauricio Pochettino’s men tried to press their visitors, but Barça were as unworried and unhurried as they had been against United some seven years earlier.

Complimenting the irrepressible Sergio Busquets and the ever-industrious Ivan Rakitić in a three-man midfield, Arthur attempted 70 passes on the barren Wembley pitch – the middle third bald from the effects of a recent Anthony Joshua boxing match – finding a colleague with 91.4 per cent accuracy.

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The Brazilian was diligent in his defensive duties, too, aiding Barça in their own pressing efforts, with Ernesto Valverde’s men demonstrating their hunger for a first Champions League crown since 2015 with the way then fought to regain possession in the rare occasions they lost it.

Before he was replaced by Arturo Vidal with four minutes to play, Arthur had three tackles to his name, a solid return considering Barcelona’s share of possession was greater than 60 per cent.

When Barça last got their hands on Europe’s grandest prize, Xavi was 35 years old and no longer a regular starter, usurped in the line-up by Rakitić. This was a different Barcelona team to the one which had so effortlessly seen off Manchester United four years before; the front three of Neymar, Messi and Luis Suárez brought dynamism, unpredictability and an unprecedented goal threat, but they didn’t monopolise control as Guardiola’s side had.

In truth, Barça haven’t replicated the style of football they became and remain synonymous with since Xavi’s role was de-emphasised as his mid-30s approached, at least not to the same degree.

Debate will no doubt rage for decades over who was better: Xavi or Andrés Iniesta. It’s a question for which there is no right or wrong answer. The only thing that can be said for certain on the matter is that both players are utterly irreplaceable.

In Arthur, though, Barça appear to finally have found the kind of chess master capable of recapturing the style of play that made them Europe’s dominant force. On the Wembley turf an heir to Xavi might just have been crowned.

Arise King Arthur.

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