There is no disputing that Barcelona’s MSN forward trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will be the centre of attention in Berlin for Saturday’s Champions League final, and it’s entirely justified, of course. Yet if Barcelona do beat Juventus and secure a fourth title in 10 years, they will not be the sole protagonists responsible.
If names like Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique are reassuringly familiar, Barca’s face and character has changed under Luis Enrique. That the Blaugrana are more pragmatic and, on occasion, direct is not just down to their coach, but down to some of the recruits brought in on his watch.
The premier among those is Ivan Rakitic. The Croatia midfielder may have been strictly second billing behind the huge deal to bring in Suarez during last summer’s window, but there was no sense inside the club that his purchase was anything of an afterthought.
Rakitic was a key part of the plan to win back La Liga, and his influence has proved every bit as telling as the recruiters and coaching staff would have hoped. While there was no doubting the indelible mark that Messi left all over the Copa del Rey final win over Athletic Bilbao (the piece that Barca hope will be the middle one of a treble), Rakitic’s own handiwork was writ large over proceedings too.
Particularly in the first half, as Barca swarmed over Athletic like a rash, he was a key figure. He nearly created the opener, having carried the ball to the edge of the area and offloaded to Suarez at just the right time, only for the Uruguayan to hit his effort straight at goalkeeper Iago Herrerin.
Later, Rakitic played a penultimate pass that was as good as an assist for Barca’s second goal, again releasing Suarez who set up Neymar for a tap-in. Yet it was the movement that preceded this that perfectly underlined how well Rakitic has fitted in at Camp Nou.
When he collected the ball some 35 yards from goal his first instinct, as so often, was to charge forward. He did so with certainty and sensibility, playing a neat one-two with Messi before instantly slotting in Suarez behind a prone defence. Rakitic was right at the heart of Barcelona, and at the heart of their superstar front line.
It was evidence of his clear assimilation into this brilliant collective. His role is (as you would expect) quite different to the one he performed at the heart of last year’s Sevilla team, for whom he was the talisman. There is considerably less opportunity for him to unleash the raking long passes forward that he perfected whilst acting as a deep-lying playmaker towards the end of his time at Schalke.
Rakitic has quite a range of passing in his locker, and he has needed it at Barcelona. His incredible versatility, learned in situations of diverging demands in Switzerland, Germany and southern Spain, has stood him in good stead and helped him to flourish.
At other times this season, that ability to fill so many roles effectively has seemed like a curse. After Luis Enrique dropped Rakitic for El Clasico in October (a contributory factor to Barca’s defeat), he struggled to respond straight away.
The experiment of combining his talents with the veteran Xavi were largely a failure, as Rakitic’s greater mobility saw him take over more defensive duties to cover his senior colleague. Keeping Rakitic as far away as possible from goal is just what opponents wanted to see.
It’s different now. In the home stretch of the season, the coach has settled on a definitive first XI—with Rakitic prominent in it. Being relied upon suited him down to the ground at Sevilla, and it suits him at Barca.
The balance and complementarity between Barcelona’s starting midfield three of Rakitic, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets is integral to what the team can do. It will be hugely important against Juve, in the one area of the pitch that the Serie A champions can claim to have a comparable level of quality to their Spanish counterparts.
Rakitic will be ready. His heart and adaptability mean he is the sort of player who would fit into Juve’s team just as well as he does in Barca’s. There can be few greater compliments.