Xavi Hernández called Manchester United FC's Paul Scholes "the best central midfielder I've seen"; Champions Matchday shows how their paths intertwined.
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They say never meet your heroes. Standing on the Old Trafford touchline, head with curtain fringe darting side-to-side, 18-year-old Xavi Hernández was about to show his what he could do. "Paul Scholes! A role model," he told The Guardian in 2011. "For me, he's the best central midfielder I've seen in the last 15, 20 years. He's spectacular, he has it all: the last pass, goals, he's strong, he doesn't lose the ball, vision."
By the time Xavi ran on to make his UEFA Champions League debut on matchday one – 16 September 1998 – Scholes had already scored and Manchester United FC led 3-2 in the 67th minute. Then operating in a deeper role, the kind Sergio Busquets now fills at FC Barcelona, Xavi had been hailed as the heir to Josep Guardiola (it is said Guardiola once told him: "You're going to retire me"). The newcomer was asked by coach Louis van Gaal to help control an explosive game. Three minutes later, Nicky Butt was sent off for handball in the area and current Blaugrana coach Luis Enrique equalised from the spot.
"What I do is look for spaces," Xavi told Champions Matchday in April 2013. "I'm always looking. People who haven't played don't always realise how hard that is. Space, space, space ... I think: the defender's here, play it there. I see the space and pass." Talking to Barça's website in March, he described his teenage self as a "naive lad", but even then he had vision. Against Brøndby IF at Camp Nou on matchday two, he was brought on at half-time – the last time he would start a European match on the bench that season. Sonny Anderson scored twice in a 2-0 victory, Barça's 'new Guardiola' looking very much the part.
In back-to-back fixtures against FC Bayern München, the young midfielder learned the cruelty of fine margins. In Munich, Xavi's first of 125 UEFA Champions League starts, Stefan Effenberg got the only goal after Barça failed to defend a cross in added time at the end of the first half. A fortnight later at Camp Nou, the Roten came back from behind to triumph 2-1.
Those results, coupled with United's six points against Brøndby and the likelihood that Bayern would beat the Danes in Munich, meant Barça needed to overcome Sir Alex Ferguson's side on matchday five. In another thrilling encounter, Xavi faced his idol from the kick-off. Anderson scored in the first minute before Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole reacted to give United 2-1 and 3-2 leads. Rivaldo's sublime overhead kick, his second goal of the night, set up a tense finale but Barça fell just short.
Yet this was not a bad campaign for the Blaugrana and their midfield debutant. Another 2-0 victory over Brøndby and a draw between United and Bayern on matchday six left Van Gaal's team a respectable third behind the eventual finalists. Xavi made 17 appearances as the Catalans landed the Liga title that season and then helped them to the UEFA Champions League semis in 2000, scoring his first European goal against Hertha BSC Berlin in the second group stage.
In 2003, Frank Rijkaard took over as coach and tweaked Xavi's role: "He said I had the talent to play further up. It didn't feel right at first and I never imagined that the best years of my career would be in central midfield. But that's what happened." He was now playing like his hero – controlling games, scoring and creating goals. By the time he met Scholes again in the 2009 and 2011 UEFA Champions League finals, the Spain midfielder was on top. He provided assists in both matches, picking up his second and third winners' medals.
Now in his last season at Barça, possibly his swansong in the competition, Xavi is the player at whom teenagers are marvelling as they share the pitch with him for the first time. Maybe a few will grow up to be as successful.