Saturday, August 6, 2011

Five Favourite Footballers - Riquelme

If Xavi and Iniesta play in the future, then Juan Roman Riquelme plays in the past. I mean that in two senses. The first is that he is an anachronism, a player who would have fitted in seamlessly to a bygone era when athleticism and workrate were not prerequisites for attacking players, but in the modern game he looks strangely out of place. The second sense is that he plays the game at his own mercilessly slow pace - while others around him are running to and fro, Riquelme is in a time zone of his own - sometimes lost, but sometimes so in control of a game that he is untouchable.

My first proper exposure to him was a friendly against England in 2005, in which he was magnificent. He played the role of conductor, or quaterback or whatever word you want to use, and played it as well as I've seen it played. He was Argentina's fulcrum in a team that was (I think) the favourites to win the World Cup in 2006. They ended up being defeated in the quarter-finals, but that should never have happened. Jose Pekerman brought on Julio Cruz instead of Lionel Messi, and the rest is history. This was a very good Argentina team, second only to Spain in the last 10 years, but for one reason or another they failed to deliver on their talent. The story of Riquelme's career, some might say.

His time at Villareal was nothing less than extraordinary, mind you. One performance that sticks out the a Champions League quarter final against Inter Milan, which had England 2005 written all over it. Riquelme lived up to his monicker "Lazy genius", controlling the game in slow motion, and almost pulling off one of the most audacious shots I've ever seen.

He is a strange player to categorise. You could argue that he is selfish, always demanding and hogging the ball. But you could also argue that he is only doing that because he knows he can make the optimum use of it with a clever flick or a perceptive pass. For a selfish player, he has a habit of giving the ball to a teammate who is in a better position to score than he is. This habit, for me, is the fundamental aspect of a good player. Riquelme has it down to an art. (See his two assists in the recent friendly against Arsenal for proof that the habit dies hard).

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