Sunday 18 February 2018

El Moto hitting new heights to show size isn't everything

Jordi Alba
Jordi Alba

Richard Martin

Manchester City will have been encouraged to learn of Barcelona's shock defeat by Malaga at the weekend, but they should be wary of meeting a wounded beast.

The last time Barcelona lost a league game, 1-0 against David Moyes' Real Sociedad at the start of January, they responded with a 5-0 blitz against Elche and then ripped champions Atletico Madrid apart, the start of a sensational run of 11 consecutive wins, with 42 goals scored.

That defeat against Real Sociedad looked set to unravel Barca's title bid and also appeared to be catastrophic to the relationship between Luis Enrique and Lionel Messi, left out of the starting line-up that night.

Local media predicted an apocalypse, saying the club was not big enough for the two of them. Instead, that night in San Sebastian proved a turning point, a shock which spurred Barcelona into action.

Jordi Alba is well used to the avalanche of criticism that lands at the players' feet on the rare occasion they lose a game, but it does not concern him.

"This is a huge club, everyone is interested in what's happening in Barcelona, you lose one game and you are criticised a lot, then in seven days' time, you win and everyone loves you again," the left-back says as he stares out onto the pitch at the club's Joan Gamper training ground.

"You need to take things calmly, whilst being aware of the club you are at and that you have a lot of responsibility."

Spotlight

Alba, who grew up less than two miles from the Nou Camp in L'Hospitalet del Llobregat, is in his third season under the Barcelona spotlight.

The 25-year-old, who measures just 5ft 6in, decided he wanted to be a footballer when he was four years old, taking his early steps as a striker at the Barcelona academy.

He was rejected by the club he supported when he was 15, deemed too small. Instead, he developed into a left-winger at Catalan side UE Cornella, before moving to Valencia.

His evolution to left-back came about when his coach, Unai Emery, faced a conundrum of how to include the talented-but-raw youngster in a team boasting Juan Mata and David Silva.

Emery moved Alba to left-back for the first time in a match at the Nou Camp and the experiment worked. Alba's first Spain call-up, against Scotland, quickly followed.

Less than three years later, he was back at Barcelona's stadium to sign a contract after a €14m move.

His transfer back to Barcelona went through while he was with the Spain squad in Kiev preparing for the Euro 2012 final against Italy. Three days later at the Olympic Stadium, he played a pass to new team-mate Xavi on the halfway line then rocketed forward to receive the ball again to rifle in Spain's second goal in a 4-0 win.

"It was a very good week," he says smiling. "I signed for Barcelona, I scored in the final of the European Championship and we won it, so it was one of the most important weeks of my life."

Rejoining Barcelona did not just mean playing with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Messi. It meant returning home, something of huge significance to Alba, who had taken 17 members of his family to the tournament.

He shunned the exclusive seaside neighbourhoods of Castelldefels and Gava, where many of his team-mates live, and instead moved into an apartment back in L'Hospitalet, to be closer to his parents and brother, an amateur futsal player and special needs teacher.

Alba's years as an attacker explain why he is so adept going forward and therefore so suited to Barcelona, but his main attribute is his extraordinary pace. Pepe Reina says "Jordi Alba doesn't run, he flies", while his high-energy performances with Spain have earned him the nickname El Moto (the motorbike).

Without a doubt, 2014 was an annus horribilis for Barcelona. It began with Sandro Rosell resigning as president over Neymar's transfer and then the club were rocked by a Fifa transfer ban for breaking the rules on the transfer of minors.

The team also lost the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid and let the league title slip on the last day of the season to Atletico.

Yet these events pale in comparison to the pain felt by the death of Tito Vilanova, Pep Guardiola's assistant and successor, who suffered a second bout of throat cancer midway through his first season in charge.

"It was a difficult year," Alba admits. "We didn't win any trophies and there were some tragic and unfortunate incidents away from the pitch that although we hadn't caused, were still very hard for us to take.

"The loss of Tito really affected us. He was a very important person. He was my first coach here."

Barcelona's outlook in 2015 is more positive. The football last season became drab and predictable under Gerardo Martino, but under Enrique, withstanding the odd slip-ups, Barcelona have been a joy to watch.

Under Guardiola, Barcelona's play turned on an axis of Messi, midfield sorcerer Xavi and the hyperactive Dani Alves, while other forwards, even of such stature as Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa, were forced to take a back seat. The narrative was that Messi could not allow anyone else to share the attacking limelight.

That is no longer the case. This season, Barca have been shooting from the hip, with Messi working up a telepathic relationship with Neymar and Luis Suarez. The trio have notched an astonishing total of 28 goals and 13 assists in 2015.

Different

Suarez may appear a different player from the one Premier League fans feasted their eyes on last season and instead of leading the attack like at Liverpool, he has taken a secondary role in goal-grabbing, netting six goals in 15 starts. But his work is no less valued by his new team-mates.

"He has settled in very well," says Alba. "He is adapting to the style of play. It's happening little by little, he's working very hard, he's a very hard working player, he's a team player."

And what of Messi? It was not long ago that the Argentinian was forced to speak on the club's official channel to deny all manner of stories about his relationship with Enrique. How does he cope with all that media focus?

"You have to ask him because I don't really know, but for me he is the No 1," Alba says.

"I think Leo is always fine. I hope he stays here for a long time." (© Daily Telegraph)

Telegraph.co.uk

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