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SO XAB TO SEE YOU GO
THERE CAN’T BE A RED ALIVE WHO WATCHED ALONSO IN THE WORLD CUP AND DIDN’T FEEL A TWINGE OF REGRET THAT HE IS NO LONGER AT ANFIELD. JOHN ROACHE WAS NO DIFFERENT.
IT IS New Year’s Day, 2005. Location: Anfield. Opponents: Chelsea. Xabi Alonso picks up the ball in the centre circle, flashes a look around the pitch and pulls back his leg to execute yet another life-affirming pass.
Before the foot can connect with the ball, Frank Lampard slams his studs into the Spaniard’s ankle. Yellow card. Broken bone.
The very shirt Alonso wore that day was donated to a local auction for a young lad with leukaemia; there was no way anybody was out-bidding me that night (and they did try – I’ve got the bank statements to prove it).
In his first few months at Anfield, the ex-Sociedad midfielder had swept away the hangover from Houllier’s last year in charge with masterclass after masterclass on what to do with a football.
The ‘puppet-master’ metaphor has become something of cliché in recent years, with observers trying hard to describe the vice-like yet fluid control exerted by players like Veron, Pirlo and Scholes from deep-lying positions.
But Alonso seemed able to work on a level quite apart from wiry strings and wooden marionettes.
His authority over the flight, velocity and destination of the ball was extrasensory, telekinetic: Xabi on a good day reminded more of an oracle than a puppeteer.
So when the opportunity arose to get hold of a top worn by this nailedon future Liverpool legend, I wasn’t going to miss out.
Now it hangs before me on the wall, both an artefact of Alonso’s
JOY OF EX: Former Reds Arbeloa and Alonso with their World Cup medals brilliance and a sad nod to the fact that his Anfield career ended under a cloud of quiet backroom discord.
Even more presciently, it has often been said that the injury inflicted by Lampard on that day induced the returning Alonso’s 18-month dip in form, and Rafael Benitez’s subsequent wish to sell him on.
Something must have gone quite cataclysmically wrong in order for Benitez, in the transfer window of 2008, to attempt to flog his playmaker for a mere £12-14million.
Even more alarmingly, no clubs were willing to pay that price, less than half of what Real Madrid would happily fork out just a year later.
Theories abound on the root causes of Xabi Alonso’s somewhat uneven Liverpool career.
John Toshack, who mentored the Basque-born midfielder during his formative years at Sociedad, reckoned that the big clubs were loath to take a gamble on him due to his remarkable lack of pace.
Benitez put his hand in the fire, banking on Xabi’s technique and intelligence to overcome a lack of athleticism.
But add a frail ankle joint to the equation and the outcome is potentially very bleak. When Alonso first arrived on the scene, he had time, space and confidence.
His early 04/05 performances, particularly at home, were imperious.
On returning from injury, the rules of the game had changed. Teams now closed him down in split seconds rather than seconds.
He looked nervous about being clattered and all too often gave possession away inside his own half, robbed by opponents whilst ponderously searching for the next pass.
Benitez has been blamed for reining in Alonso in an attempt to