By KS Leong
When it comes to under-rated and under-appreciated footballers, no player fits that description better than Xabi Alonso, as unfortunate as it may be.
While players like Fabio Cannavaro, Claude Makelele, Carles Puyol and Xavi have attained the recognition they deserve after years and years of consistent, magnificent performances, Alonso hasn’t quite been given his due yet.
The 30-year-old Basque-born midfielder is very much a no-frills, no-thrills type of player, a player who has to do the dirty work but does so without fuss; a player who makes a difficult task look effortless and a simple task look elegant.
We have frequently examined the importance of Puyol and Xavi to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, stars who regularly have to live with Messi hogging the limelight. If Puyol is the heart of Barca and Xavi the brains, then Alonso is both for Madrid.
With the ability to control the midfield, win back possession, exert his dominance with his forceful challenges, and exhibit superb passing range and vision, Xabi - in a way - does the job of Puyol and Xavi combined.
Xabi’s importance to Madrid cannot be highlighted enough, especially against a team like Sporting, who are expected to be very stubborn at the back and very dangerous on the break. Madrid need a player like Xabi who can spray a variety of passes around the opposition half, someone who is comfortable on the ball under pressure to retain possession, and able to break up a counter-attack.
It’s not just his individual ability that will be missed. His teamwork has been vital to Madrid’s successes this season. At present, he has the second-best pass completion rate in La Liga with 1062 clean deliveries, behind only Xavi with 1273. He has released 221 accurate passes down the wings for a team-mate, more than any other player at Madrid; he is also the second-most fouled player at the club at 23 times, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo’s 30.
All of these numbers suggest just how much his colleagues rely on him, and how much possession he has of the ball one game after another to keep the team’s increasingly-fluid midfield and attack ticking like clockwork.
Mourinho will have more options now, compared to last season, to fill the void left by Alonso. Sami Khedira, Lassana Diarra, Nuri Sahin, Kaka, Fabio Coentrao - although not all of them are direct replacements - will give the Portuguese coach numerous combinations to work with and allow him to shuffle the pack throughout the game to accommodate Xabi’s absence.
But despite the extra alternatives to fall back on, Madrid are unlikely to find their trip to El Molinon any easier. Manolo Preciado seems to have found a strategy to frustrate both Madrid and Barca in recent seasons. Los Blancos, since scoring a total of 11 goals over two games against Sporting in the 2008-09 campaign, have failed to beat the Asturians by more than two goals in their subsequent four meetings. In fact, Preciado’s men have conceded just four times to the capital giants in their last four encounters. The most significant of those four, of course, was Sporting’s 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu last season, which famously ended Mourinho’s nine-year undefeated streak at home in league games. And that came with Alonso missing from the field.
Even Barcelona, despite all their attacking firepower, have failed to score more than a goal a game against the Gijon outfit in their last four meetings.
Alonso’s absence against Sporting could prove decisive, and if the result doesn't go Madrid’s way, it could be one of the key turning points in this season’s title race. But ultimately, Madrid, Madridistas and Mourinho would rather be sure of having Xabi Alonso with the team to face Barcelona in El Clasico.