The departure of a legend leaves a mark and a gap on any club. When it comes to history, the leadership in the locker room, the talent capabilities on the pitch, everything is thoroughly missed. It is no different in Xavi Hernández's case. The historical Barcelona midfielder is getting ready to play his last match in a Blaugrana uniform this Saturday, when Barça faces Juventus in Berlin for the UEFA Champions League Final.
We still don't know if he's going to play - maybe he'll start if Andrés Iniesta isn't available, maybe he won't even enter the pitch due to the unknown circumstances that we can only figure out when the game actually happens --, but we do know that his presence will be fundamental in itself, and there isn't a football person that will disagree that his absence from July 7th on will be just enormous.
More than his importance as a leader and captain and anything else, his spot on right midfield cannot possibly be fully replaced. Ivan Rakitic is really good, but he's not Xavi. If he comes, Ilkay Gundogan is really good, but he's not Xavi. No one is like Xavi.
Lionel Messi is the next Xavi?
The best player in history is known as the single most lethal striker in the world today. Possibly ever. With over 400 goals scored, Messi is still in his prime, and his ability to find the net week in and week out alongside two world-class strikers is mind-boggling.
But perhaps what's most impressive about Leo, even more than the goal-scoring ability, is just how adaptable and capable of reinventing himself the Argentine is. He started his career as a pest who ran all over the right side and fed Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry while getting his fair share of scores. Playing that way he was already an unstoppable force and his football story would have been unforgettable if he only played that way.
Then Pep Guardiola happened. The most successful coach in the history of the club one night just called Leo and suggested that he played as a false nine - a role that would transform Leo and make Guardiola's team just a perfect machine. Not only did Messi flourish on that role, he dominated planet Earth and won four consecutive Golden Balls.
After a disappointing season under Tata Martino, came Luis Enrique, who had an idea to integrate Luis Suárez into his system while maximizing Messi's potential at the same time: move Leo back to the right side. No problem: Messi reinvented himself, went back to the role he had on the beginning of his career, and is enjoying perhaps his greatest season after once again adapting to new schemes.
But the great thing about Messi this season is that he's more free than he was in the Eto'o-Henry attack: he can move from right to middle, appearing on the midfield a lot, feeding full-backs and his fellow MSNers with perfect long balls. Many times Leo has played as a midfielder, and because of his positioning on the pitch, it does look like La Pulga is testing himself as the New Xavi. And he is kicking butts doing it.
So how would the greatest striker ever like dropping back to midfield to fill the Xavi Gap? He would love to adapt again.
"It's possible. A lot of players drop deeper when they move into the later stages of their career, and that's certainly an option for me, to become an out-and-out midfielder. I have played in midfield a lot already, and I cover a lot of ground there. I am happy to play as a forward, as a deep forward, in the middle - I just hope that I can keep going.
"There are many players who have prolonged their careers by playing in a different place, where maybe you don't rely on being so explosive all the time, on your speed."
Whatever you decide, Leo, just do it. We all know you'll be great at it.