Barcelona's Team of the Decade
At his peak, Ronaldinho was arguably better than even Leo Messi
Messi's performances the last few years have been incredible statistically
Playmaker Xavi is arguably Spain's greatest ever central midfielder
Here's one man's choice for Barcelona's Team of the Decade, 2000-2010:
GK: Víctor Valdés
Valdés has won three Zamora awards since his debut for Barcelona in November 2002, as many as any goalkeeper since the turn of the century. Trouble is, the response to that particular fact is as inevitable as it is easy: The Zamora, handed to the man who has conceded the fewest goals per game, actually rewards the best defense, not the best goalkeeper -- and any old idiot can play in goal for Barcelona. But that's only partly true. And if anything, what you could call the Brazilian Goalkeeper Syndrome might actually have counted against him, minimizing his importance. After all, everyone wants their goalkeeper to be a savior, and you can only save those who need saving.
Valdés, Zamora in 2004-05, has long since left the doubts behind (he has particularly improved with the ball at his feet, where he was occasionally disastrous). And although Barcelona's dominance of the ball limits the number of chances the opposition gets -- in Barça's last six games before the Catalan derby, for example, it had conceded just nine goal-scoring opportunities -- it is not all about the defense. Strong, focused, positionally clever and quick, Valdés plays his part, too, with key saves at key moments. Last season he unquestionably deserved the Zamora. His late call-up to the Spain squad for the World Cup was an act of justice, not charity.
RB: Juliano Belletti
Let's face it, Dani Alves is the best right back to play for Barcelona over the last 10 years -- and probably over the last 20. But he joined Barcelona only two years ago, and although he was a vital part of a unique team that won six trophies in a run, he did not actually play in the Champions League final against Manchester United in Rome.
So, sneaking in ahead of him (probably unfairly) is Belletti, who was at Barcelona from 2004-2007 and won two league titles and the European Cup. That's the same as Alves (who adds a Copa del Rey and World Club Cup), only with one big difference: Belletti may have scored only once for Barça, but it was the winning goal in the European Cup final. Frank Rijkaard's fears over his perceived defensive frailties were misplaced -- and ultimately cost Barcelona. That Barcelona replaced him first with Oleguer and then with Zambrotta was not the main factor in the club's decline, but it was a factor. Without Belletti, Barcelona had little width, becoming more predictable and more exposed, not less.
CB: Carles Puyol
Barcelona's very own Captain Caveman, playing with his hair in his eyes and his heart on his sleeve. He suffered an important fall in form during 2007 and 2008 -- based, above all, on the coming together of a tactical weakness and a physical dip, as well as the fact that he was suddenly exposed and felt a responsibility to cover for others. Puyol tended to come screeching out of defense to win tackles and headers that he couldn't actually get to. The good news is that Pep Guardiola has helped eradicate those tactical mistakes. Also, fit again, deeply serious about his preparation, Puyol has the physical condition to get away with it once again. In fact, he has got even better. He seemed to be on his way out a year or so ago, but has been undisputed since.
Almost comically intense, Puyol never, ever lets his guard slip. Just ask teammate Gerard Piqué, who spends all game, every game getting shouted at. Or Edmílson. During one game Puyol started screaming at Edmílson over a minor mistake ... until Valdés intervened to calm him down and remind him that Barcelona was winning 3-0. Puyol has racked up more than 350 league games, four league titles, two European Cups, a European Championship and a World Cup.
CB: Gerard Piqué
When Piqué was a kid, then-Barcelona coach Louis Van Gaal came around to his grandfather's house for dinner. The proud grandfather, also a director at the club, introduced little Gerard: a kid who was going to go on an play for his club. Van Gaal walked up to him ... and pushed him over. Towering over Gerard, he barked: "You're too weak to be a Barcelona defender."
Who knows, had it not been for the spell at Manchester United, he might have been right. But now, Piqué is not just strong enough to play for Barcelona but is on course to be a future captain and a massive idol, possibly even the best central defender in Europe. Piqué, wonderful with the ball at his feet, the first link in every Barcelona move, allows Barça to invite pressure and still escape it. The 2009 Copa del Rey final was the classic example, Piqué receiving from Valdés on his own byline to draw in Athletic Bilbao. Then there's the sixth goal against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu -- in which Piqué started and brilliantly finished a 60-yard move.
In just two years at Barcelona, he has won everything there is to win, including a World Cup. (And if two years does not seem enough to get in this side -- and for other positions it hasn't been -- ask yourself this: Who else is there? Márquez? Maybe. De Boer? Nah.)
LB: Giovanni Van Bronckhorst
Gio wasn't even a left back when he joined Barcelona but he did a pretty good impression of one. Quick, tidy and not at all bad defensively, he gave Barcelona balance and a certain attacking presence between 2003 and 2007. He didn't get that many goals but his 94th-minute winner against Betis allowed Barcelona to take a giant step toward the 2004-2005 title. That was one of two league titles that Gio won with the club. And he also won the European Cup. He arrived, as a midfielder, on loan from Arsenal and later joined Barcelona on a permanent deal for €2 million ($2.6 million). A bargain.
M: Xavi Hernández
In the words of Louis Van Gaal and Alex Ferguson, Xavi gave the ball away once ... sometime back in 1996. Xavi is the ultimate passer, the man who is not only a far better player than most footballers but also makes his teammates far better players. Every time he gets the ball, he has only one thing on his mind: to give it away again. In the last year, a player has completed 100 passes or more on 25 occasions; Xavi has done it 13 times. On Sunday, he completed more passes (156!) than the entire Levante team.
Xavi is the ideologue behind the most successful Barcelona team in history -- and the most successful Spain team, too. In the last two years alone, he has won the European Championships, the World Cup, the league, the Copa del Rey and the European Cup. Barcelona's all-time leader in appearances (he debuted with the club in October 1998) is the best central midfielder Spanish football has produced.
M: Andres Iniesta
"Andres doesn't dye his hair, he doesn't wear earrings and he hasn't got any tattoos," Pep Guardiola said. Xavi added: "Andres has everything -- except media backing. For a few years, the complaint was that his normal-ness meant that people did not give him enough credit; now, it has become another selling point. Not only is he brilliant -- and he is sometimes startling, unexpectedly brilliant -- but everyone loves him even more precisely because he appears so normal. So thoroughly likable, so utterly decent. Skinny, pale, a little balding, yet a total genius with unbelievably fast feet. "Walking" through a training drill at the Mini Estadi the other day, he moved the ball from one foot to the other so fast that the crowd was left open-mouthed. Beyond the tribal loyalties, if the Spanish could have chosen a man to score the winning goal in the World Cup final, they would have chosen him. Iniesta, on the other hand, simply waited for the ball to drop and chose his spot.
Deco joined Barcelona as the star from Jose Mourinho's European Cup-winning Porto side in 2004. But rather than take the fantasy role behind the strikers, he played in a more withdrawn, deeper position. From there he, even more than Xavi, dictated the game for three years. Deco had an unusual way of moving the ball -- always controlled it with his studs rather than his instep, putting his foot on the ball, rolling it with the underside of his boot. And he seemed to almost hop rather than run past opponents. He had great vision and an extraordinary tactical awareness. When he played well, Barcelona played well. And his decline, like that of Ronaldinho, was in part Barcelona's decline too. Sadly, his departure was necessary for the team's rebirth. But a few years earlier his arrival had been too. Deco won two league titles and the European Cup between 2004 and 2008, and was voted UEFA's best midfielder in 2006.
Ronaldinho's rapid decline, the fact that he became a huge problem for Barcelona (and "huge" was often the word), doesn't change the bottom line: For three or four years he was absolutely incredible, doing things you had simply never seen before -- the outrageous skill, the dribbles, the assists, the overhead kicks and the rockets, flying in off the bar. The passes with his back, for goodness' sake. Had he carried on like that and had he emulated his Barcelona form at a World Cup, we might have been talking about one of the best players of all time. But he didn't.
He did, though, change Barcelona's history -- revitalizing it, kick-starting it after three years of crisis. Ronaldinho who was (my) Player of the Year twice, in 2004 and 2006 (only Leo Messi has done the same in the decade), and FIFA World Player twice in a row, won two league titles and the European Cup, scoring almost a goal every other game. Most of them brilliant. He even got a standing ovation from Real Madrid's fans after one stunning display at the Santiago Bernabéu. In 2003, Barcelona incoming president Joan Laporta tried to sign David Beckham and failed. So he signed Ronaldinho instead. Has to be the greatest runners-up prize ever.
F: Samuel Eto'o
The striker with a big mouth and an even bigger heart. Plus a very short fuse. Driven, committed, almost pathological in his desire to win, Eto'o was absolutely voracious and scored a ridiculous amount of goals with unflinching consistency. In fact, over the last decade, no one has scored more in La Liga than him. More important, he always got the goals that mattered, the opening goals and the winning goals -- not just the ones that came at the end of a thrashing of some bunch of donkeys.
He left Barcelona having won the treble ... and immediately won another one with Inter. Eto'o scored more than 150 league goals, and even when he was not able to have an impact, he had one: He missed much of 2006-07 and 2007-08 with injury but still scored 11 goals in 19 games and 16 in 18, respectively. The fact that those were the years that Barcelona went without success are no coincidence, either.
Eto'o won three league titles, the Copa del Rey and two European Cups, and he scored the key opening goal in both of Barcelona's European Cup finals. It wasn't just about the goals, either -- it was also about the pressure and intensity he applied. No one wanted it more than Eto'o. One of the things that was often overlooked about his very public, very damaging dispute with Ronaldinho is that Eto'o was right.
F: Leo Messi
Easy choice, hard to explain. How do you find the words to do justice to Lionel Messi? Where do you get a superlative that hasn't been used before? (Not least on these very pages.) The man whose statistics are barely plausible, who can do it all -- and "all" really is the word. Un. Be. Lievable.
Coach: Pep Guardiola. Rijkaard shouldn't be forgotten but there's only one candidate -- Guardiola.