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Messi, Iniesta and Xavi driven to join the Champions League elite

If Barça overcome a clever, dangerous Juventus side on Saturday night, and if it is Xavi Hernandez lifting that big lump of silver to the Berlin sky, then it will be a story of such emotion and such poetry that it would make a granite gargoyle shed a tear.

Equally, if it happens to be Gigi Buffon, then our sport will still swell with pride -- 84 Champions League games, a genuine all-time legend and finally, at 38 years old, this trophy for the first time, in the same square metre as where he lifted the World Cup nine years ago.

However, if it is another Blaugrana year, then victory will, according to statisticians and websites all over the world, elevate Leo Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta into the rarefied air of the Champions League elite.

Four tournament wins (equal to the metronome Clarence Seedorf in the modern age) and just two trophies behind the all-time No. 1: Paco Gento, Real Madrid's relentless winger of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet I don't think that will tell the fully accurate story and I have my suspicions that Xavi, and to an even greater extent Messi, agree with me.

All three men played in the 2005-06 Champions League campaign; that's fair to say. But just because record books everywhere credit Xavi and Messi with having won that competition doesn't make it so. Not in their minds, at least.

Let's put a bit of context on all this. This week Xavi and Iniesta allowed El Periodico to record them having a fond chat about their years together: a valedictory of friendship, achievement, stubbornness, talent and enjoyment.

Part of their "thanks for the memories" conversation went like this:

Xavi: "Remember what it was like when we started out? A half-empty stadium and the supporters waving white hankies at us . . . ? We had to be so strong psychologically. We had to really believe in what we were doing. I suppose it's about being a winner at heart. And you, "Busi," and Leo are the three players I've enjoyed working with the most."

Iniesta: "I suppose it's a lesson for life, too. Never give up. You have to go out every single day and show that you are good at what you do. We have both played a key role in everything we have achieved and that is something to be truly proud of. It all started back in Paris. Then a decade of Barca at the top."

There's the stark truth: They all began when Barcelona was in decline.

Xavi, Messi and Iniesta have been at the core of so much of Barca's greatness, but it could have been so different.

When Messi arrived, the majority of Barcelona executives and many of their youth coaches could see no need in retaining him. There was no chance of him making it as an elite professional. Just let that sink in.

Within about a season of Xavi breaking into the first team, Barcelona's board were convinced that he was "one to sell." By 2002 they were actively trying to move him and he told me, last week, that it was only a combination of his own stubbornness and his mother's "beyond reason" love of FC Barcelona that combined and convinced him to stay and fight it out.

Iniesta? Well he broke into a squad where his coaches, Frank Rijkaard and assistant Henk Ten Cate, actively tried to loan him out to Rangers. Rijkaard still didn't trust Iniesta because of his height (5-foot-6) and slight frame (159 pounds) all the way up to the 2006 final in Paris.

In later years Iniesta would confess that during those Rijkaard years, he had waited patiently but deeply frustrated while players who were either less fit than him, less professional than him or simply not as talented as him were routinely chosen to start ahead of him. He didn't have the personality to erupt in anger and protest his case; just the character to dig in and prove, beyond question, that he was their better.

So, given that this is the trio's fourth final, it's worth going back to what Iniesta calls "where it all started" -- Paris.

Barcelona's Champions League triumph in 2006 was the beginning of their dynasty.

Barcelona hadn't won anything between 1999 and 2005: six long, arid years. Liga titles fell in 2005 and 2006 but by the Champions League final against Arsenal, Messi was totally discarded by Rijkaard despite having worked beastly hard in order to return from injury and playing superbly in the knockout stages.

When Barça won 2-1 at Stamford Bridge over Jose Mourinho's Chelsea that spring, Marca's Santi Segurola wrote: "In a rarely seen show of skill intelligence and courage, Messi tore Chelsea apart to the astonishment of the English fans who reacted as often happens when a player causes panic. Beyond the boos they dedicated to him every time he touched the ball there was dread; dread at his overwhelming demonstration of class. You shouldn't be able to dominate a game of this calibre as he did aged just 18."

Messi pulled up, hamstring torn, in the return leg at the Camp Nou when Chelsea were eliminated. But he trained, hard, in the days before the Paris final. He thought he was ready. Yet Rijkaard didn't even list Messi in the subs for the Arsenal game, a final during which it looked for a long time as if Sol Campbell's headed goal would be sufficient to give the 10-man Gunners the title.

With regard to whether the little genius now feels in possession of two or three Champions League titles, I refer to the interview I did with him a couple of months after Paris. He had infamously refused to come down to the pitch from the stand to celebrate with his squad mates, furious at having been dropped.

The red mist cleared quickly and he regretted the decision almost instantly, telling me: "I'd been central to the team in an important stage of the tournament and all that happened was that I had a rush of blood to the head and made a decision I'd take back if I could."

He added: "I feel completely differently about my league title medal compared to my Champions League medal -- I feel a champion of Spain much more than I do a champion of Europe. But God willing, I'll be back to win this tournament again."

Xavi was nearly sold in 2002 as Barca's braintrust believed he wasn't needed.

Xavi had suffered brutal knee ligament damage in December 2005, and while Rijkaard put him on the bench, he wasn't used. Which leaves Iniesta, the third man of the trio who can win a "fourth" Champions League this weekend and the third of them not to have started in Paris.

There's an infamous image from the Anoeta this season with Neymar and Messi, looking at each other in bemused astonishment, alongside Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic on the bench. "What the hell is the coach thinking of . . . " is the tone of their facial expressions. It was the same in Paris 2006. All three men who would tilt the final Barcelona's way, Juliano Belletti, Henrik Larsson and Iniesta, started among the cluster of substitutes on the bench.

Iniesta takes part, hitting the utterly gorgeous pass in the 76th minute, right-footed and fizzing along on top of the sodden Parisian turf, which Larsson just half-touches into Samuel Eto'o's path for the equaliser.

But I've asked Iniesta about Paris in 2006 and he told me that until then, at least, it was "the worst moment of my life." Hence the fact that when 2009 came along, Barcelona's No. 8 performed something of a physical miracle.

Ten days before his second Champions final, 10 days before Wayne Rooney would stomp into the Rome dressing room defeated but lost in admiration and say, "We've lost to the best player in the world [Iniesta]," the Spanish midfielder suffered a two-centimetre tear (three-quarters of an inch) in his thigh muscle.

Take your forefinger and your thumb, measure it out and place that space on your thigh. Imagine your quadricep tearing by that much. Now imagine playing with that impediment for 92 minutes against Manchester United in the heat and the passion of Rome's Olympic Stadium with the greatest club trophy at stake.

As soon as he suffered the injury against Villarreal, Iniesta told his father: "No way am I missing this game -- nothing on earth will stop me playing." It's worth underlining once more that Barcelona's medics ordered Iniesta not to shoot against United in Rome because of the basic certainty they had that using such force would automatically blast his thigh muscle to hell, and he'd be carted off to hospital on the spot.

Iniesta famously rallied from a torn thigh muscle to lead Barca to victory in 2009. Will he be vital on Saturday?

Xavi told El Periodico: "You know, at times Andres has stopped me in my tracks when he's done something during a game . . . I just have to stand there with my mouth open, thinking: 'Bloody hell, what did he just do?' We've had great times together."

And perhaps herein lies part of the secret that these three all-time greats possess -- if "secret" is a permissible word for three of the most-watched, most-known, most-written about footballers in history.

Once they want something, nothing stands in their way. Once they have a thorn in their sides, it will be removed one way or another, at whatever cost. Paris in 2006 was the start of it in one sense, given that Barcelona won their first European Cup/Champions League since 1992. But it also began a relentless, grimly determined "I shall not be denied" march to greatness.

In Rome three years later, it was Iniesta who jinked and ran and prodded the assist into the path of Samuel Eto'o, who scored the 10th minute goal that Sir Alex Ferguson later referred to as the goal that "killed us."

Imagine that: a Fergie team beaten after 10 minutes. The first time ever . . . right? Iniesta caused it.

Late in the game, which two players combined for the absolute clincher? Xavi to Messi.

Messi, who the English media had gleefully been pointing out couldn't score against Premier League opposition. Of all the ways it could have happened, the 5-6 striker headed a looping goal over the open-mouthed 6-5 Dutch goalkeeper. Even now it seems so, so improbable.

I once asked Xavi whether he's the only man in the world who could have seen that the right ball was to give Messi a header to score with in Rome. He put me right. Height had nothing to do with it, according to Xavi. "Messi is the best at everything: heading, tackling, defending, dribbling, passing, scoring." Messi simply thought he did the obvious thing.

Then, in the 2011 football epiphany at Wembley, three of the key players in Barcelona's opening goal against United are our heroes of this column. Iniesta and Sergio Busquets shuffled the ball around to allow others to find space and to draw in United. Xavi moved between the lines: "My skill on the pitch is about looking round and round in search of space and I saw that I could turn . . . then Andres played the ball forward to me."

Messi made a terrific run that confused Patrice Evra. Pedro was free, Xavi found him, and it was 1-0. Messi then made it 2-1 with that fierce, dipping, bouncing drive served up to him by Iniesta, and the three of them (one way or another) had their third Champions League winning experience.

Now they are back and there's a page of history to write. But you can bet your bottom dollar that each of them is focused, right now, not simply on winning a fourth, but somehow avoiding all the mixed emotions that still surround their inaugural, epoch-initiating win in Paris nine years ago.

Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.


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