Javier Mascherano: 'We're never satisfied, we don't settle for 1-0 wins'
Javier Mascherano has struggled to fit in at Barcelona, but tonight he will get his chance against old foes Arsenal. Pete Jenson hears how he has embraced the Catalans' ethos
Tuesday 08 March 2011
Javier Mascherano has one abiding memory of his matches against the team he will face in the Champions League last-16 second leg at the Nou Camp tonight. "I played Arsenal many times when I was in England," he says. "They always made me do a lot of running."
Now playing for the team whose shadows the rest of Europe have been chasing for the last two and half years, Mascherano is set for a rare start and a role reversal – tonight the plan will be that Barcelona do the attacking and Arsenal do the running.
"I played them in the league many times [for Liverpool] and I played them in the League Cup," he said here in Barcelona this week. "We usually drew against them and I remember that they always had control of the matches and we always tried to organise ourselves well defensively and hurt them on the counter-attack."
Former foes such as Mathieu Flamini, Kolo Touré and William Gallas have moved on but Mascherano believes the heartbeat of the Arsenal team remains the same. "I played against Cesc [Fabregas] a thousand times. He has that different touch on the ball; that something a little bit special that reminds everyone where he came from." Which, of course, is Barcelona.
Tonight, Mascherano will be in direct competition with Fabregas – with the Arsenal captain arguably better suited to wearing the red and blue shirt than Barcelona's current No 14. The problems Mascherano has had in making the transition from the counter-attacking style of Rafa Benitez at Liverpool to Barcelona's constant pouring forward have landed him on the bench more often than on the pitch.
He started the first home game of the season when Barcelona suffered their only league defeat so far, against little Hercules, and has only been named in the starting line-up in 10 La Liga games since, and only plays tonight because of Pep Guardiola's injury crisis.
Sergio Busquets will step back into defence to cover the absence through suspension of Gerard Pique (Carles Puyol is still out through injury). That will give Mascherano a rare chance to fill the boots of the player who looks like keeping him out of the first team indefinitely.
The Spanish international midfielder was the cornerstone of Guardiola's successful Barcelona youth team, and when the coach stepped up to the first team he took Busquets with him. "He is the perfect player for this club," says Mascherano of Busquets. "He has the talent to play in any team in the world but he was born to play here. He has everything a Barcelona central midfielder should have – he wins the ball; never gives it away; and positions himself perfectly on the pitch. I watch him and try to learn, and take things from his game."
When Mascherano was presented to the fans last August, the club portrayed their new signing as someone who could fill various positions and would offer an invaluable flexibility. But those who followed his career in England know he performs one role on the pitch – one he learned to perfection under Benitez at Liverpool.
"With Rafa I perfected the tactical side of my game," he says. "He gave me the chance to prove I could play in England. When I arrived Liverpool had Mohamed Sissoko, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, and the first thing I thought was, 'If I'm not getting a game at West Ham then how am I going to play here?'
"But Rafa moved Gerrard forward to play behind Fernando Torres and I played alongside Alonso. His job was to create and mine was to shield the defence. I was born again at Liverpool. In many ways, I felt more at home there than I did at River Plate even though it ended badly when they decided to sell me."
The accusation that he was forced out was the undercurrent to his presentation at Barcelona last August. "Roy Hodgson knows the truth. This is a happy moment for me so now is not the time to say it, but a lot of lies have been spoken about me and I will respond to them," he said at the time.
The idea that he was forced out of Liverpool doesn't quite sit with something else he said on his first day at Barcelona. "Last year, Liverpool would not let me leave. There was no way they would sell me. They had Xabi Alonso and me, and they would only let Xabi leave."
But while protestations that he never really wanted to leave Liverpool might not pass cross-examination the enduring passion for his former club is genuine. "I hope they get back into the Champions League as soon as possible," he says. "I still have a lot of affection for the fans of the club and I always will."
And there is also a misty-eyed nostalgia whenever he has the chance to recall the blood and thunder of the Premier League. When he was stopped to talk on Saturday night after Barcelona's league victory over Real Zaragoza, and despite the Champions League nature of the questioning, he soon got to talking about the Premier League and Liverpool's battle with Manchester United on Sunday.
He had been asked if the Premier League teams were looking stronger in Europe this season but he'd heard only the words "Premier League" and "stronger" and he took his cue to talk about the competition he left at the end of last season and the match the Spanish call the "English clasico".
"It's more of a battle this year," he said. "I think Manchester United are stronger but they face Liverpool in what is a classic English fixture and they come into the game off the back of a defeat. I hope Liverpool can beat them." He will have been a happy man by Sunday night then.
"Playing in England is one of the greatest things that has happened to me in my career," he added. "English football is football in its purest sense. No one looks to cheat; you play to win; it's pure innocence – it's like the football you play when you're a kid on the street."
Of his lack of starts since moving to Spain, he says: "A winning team needs 11 on the pitch, five on the bench and six watching from the stands – that is what gives you healthy competition and that is why I came here." He was watching from the sidelines when Liverpool knocked Barcelona out of the Champions League in 2007. He had only just arrived and had yet to force his way into the side. Liverpool lost the second leg 1-0 at home in that tie, but qualified on away goals. Tonight a 1-0 win would do for Barcelona but Mascherano isn't playing for Benitez anymore and he's doing his best to adapt. "A 1-0 would serve our purposes but if there is one thing you can say for sure about this team, it is never satisfied. We will try to win the game by the biggest margin possible."
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