Barcelona’s little big man

WIND back to August, and a one-on-one chat with Barcelona’s new signing David Villa at the training ground. A recent World Cup winner, Villa was enthusing about his new life at Camp Nou when Barça’s press chief walked past.

“That was Liverpool FC,” he said to Villa. “We have signed Javier Mascherano. The deal was concluded at 3am.”

Villa paused and weighed up what he’d just been told: “Tough player. Captain of Argentina. He’ll fit in here.”

The Barça faithful were less sanguine, even indifferent. Few saw Mascherano ousting Sergio Busquets from the first XI, even though Mascherano cost £22m (€25m). They considered him a replacement for Yaya Toure, who’d become a peripheral figure.

And that’s how it was proved for much of the season. Mascherano had an inauspicious debut in Barça’s 2-0 home defeat to promoted Hercules — their only home defeat of the season. Hauled off at half-time, he didn’t start another match for a month — a poor home draw with Mallorca.

Mascherano’s season flitted between the bench and a start every other match. Both his thinking and passing didn’t look quick enough for Barca. He was a cumbersome freight train among sleek high-speed expresses.

In March, the in-form French international Eric Abidal was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his liver.

With Carles Puyol crocked and Gabriel Milito perennially injured, Barça faced a shortage of central defenders. Mascherano’s season took flight and he became a virtual ever present. He was Barça’s best performer in the Spanish Cup final defeat to Madrid in Valencia and equally adept at the Bernabéu a week later as Barca triumphed 2-0 in the Champions League. Mistakes were few and fans began to celebrate Mascherano’s no-nonsense consistency and dependability. The former River Plate, Corinthians, West Ham and Liverpool defensive midfielder is favourite to start alongside Gerard Pique at Wembley but he still doesn’t know.

“We are lucky that the key players for us like Abidal and Puyol are back so I don’t know if I am going to play or not. I am just ready to help the team,” he said.

“It is not my position obviously but when you don’t play in your position you try and adapt and show other qualities,” he said. “I know that I am not going to win balls in the air. I am small but when I have played in defence I have given everything for the team.”

Mascherano has faced United before. In March 2008, he was sent off for collecting two yellow cards, but had to be escorted off the field by his captain Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso.

“I (try to) forget about that,” he says. “After that I played against (United) many times, I won some and lost some but I have forgotten about that game now.

“It was a big mistake in my life. But this is the final of the Champions League, it’s not Manchester United v Liverpool.”

Mascherano is a rarity among Barça players in that he’s been on the losing side in a European Cup final.

“I played with Liverpool (against Milan) in 2007 and I know what it is like to lose,” he sighs.

“I still have that memory.”

And he does not underestimate the task ahead against United.

“We’re thinking only about winning but we know how difficult it will be,” he says. “United know what it takes to play in finals, so for that reason alone it will be a very difficult game.”

There’s a confident mood around Barcelona, with many fans predicting a two or three-goal victory.

“I don’t think so,” says Mascherano. “I know a little bit about Ferguson and United and I know that whenever one player has left United, Ferguson has managed to adapt the team and rebuild. He is very clever for that and that is why he has been in charge for 25 years. They have bought Chicharito, (while) Valencia and Nani are much better than two years ago. We’re making a mistake if we think Manchester United is a weak team.”


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