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Tuesday, 18 April 2006

3016: Beware Villarreal's Midfield M

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by : Paul Grech

Not everyone can have the same mesmerising effect on a game that Barcelona’s Ronaldinho or Arsenal’s Thierry Henry can through their trickery and skills. Then again not everyone needs to in order to play an equally influential role.

Juan Roman Riquelme is currently one of the world’s finest players. If anyone were to pay any notice. In fact, he has been on of the best for a couple of years now but it is only the fact that Villarreal have made such an impact on this year’s Champions League that he has been paid any attention at all.

Which, ironically, has been Villarreal’s good fortune. Riquelme’s low profile has allowed them to progress without anyone really trying to stop their key player. Inter certainly didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – and neither of their two Argentine midfielders Juan Sebastian Veron and Esteban Cambiasso could get near him in the Champions League Quarter Final.

Riquelme’s talent is that, when he gets the ball he knows exactly what he has to do to hurt defences. He can spot gaps between defenders where others see nothing, his freekicks are breathtakingly precise and he knows instinctively what those around him are about to do. As Phil Ball, author of the book on Spanish football ‘Morbo’, brilliantly said about Riquelme, “to watch him is to see the art of midfield play at its supreme and subtle best”

Even so, there still are many doubters. His abortive season at Barcelona is the one that most seem remember, failing to recall that it was a side riled with internal bickering and public squabbles. Used to bossing Boca Juniors’ midfield, Riquelme couldn’t get to grips with those problems and the various egos at the club, often looking lost in front of the headlights of the Nou Camp.

At Villarreal, however, has flourished into La Liga’s best kept secret. Because, for some reason, the rest of Europe still struggles to pay any notice.

Too slow has often been the verdict on Riquelme, as if a player of his talents needs to run around after the ball to confirm that he is any good. Villarreal and their coach Manuel Pellegrini have realised this, so their tactic has often been that of getting the ball to his feet and then letting him do the rest confident that he will make the best possible use with it. Something that he does with brilliant and clinical regularity.

Paul Grech
17 April 2006

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