Whoever takes it, it's Barca's Ballon d'Or

In a way, all these Barcelona players deserve the FIFA Ballon d'Or. Two in a row for Lionel Messi would be apt recognition of his genius. A vote for Xavi Hernandez is a vote for the best midfielder in the world and one of the best of all time, and the fulcrum of two genuinely great teams. A vote for Andres Iniesta would echo the deafening applause that has greeted the little man all over Spain this season, gratitude overwhelming the bitterest of rivalries, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

Andy Gray, that most discerning of TV pundits, recently opined that Barcelona wouldn't find life so easy if it woke up one morning to find itself playing in the English Premier League. “Barcelona would struggle in the EPL as they've never played the likes of Stoke,” said Gray. Lionel Messi, he added, “would struggle in a cold night at the Britannia Stadium.”

Seldom have more bizarre words been spoken. In the days preceding their utterance, Barcelona had pulled off one of the greatest wins in its history, a 5-0 spanking of Real Madrid, and seen three of its players — Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta — chosen in the three-man shortlist for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.

Stoke, meanwhile, hadn't registered a Premier League win in three games. Two of those games, a draw and a defeat, were at home, in a particularly bitter winter, in that fortress that is the Britannia Stadium.

Gray, of course, was expressing that tired, nonsensical cliche of English football, that foreign teams cannot cope with its rugged physicality.

But we will never know (unless Stoke miraculously qualifies for the Champions League) whether Barcelona can pass the Andy Gray test.

Curiously enough, Barcelona has been evolving over the last couple of seasons in order to beat Stoke. Well, not really Stoke, but an imaginary Stoke that possesses skill and tactical nous to supplement its undoubted physicality and stubbornness, a team like the Inter Milan side that knocked it out of the Champions League last season.

The first seeds of Barca's evolution were sown in its victory over Manchester United in the 2008-09 Champions League. That tournament was negotiated for most part with a fairly rigid, predictable 4-3-3. It all changed in the final.

Manchester United expected Lionel Messi to occupy the right wing. Instead, he played centrally. Suddenly, no one quite knew how to deal with him. When he went deeper to combine with Iniesta and Xavi, he left centre backs Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in a quandary — follow him and leave a hole at the back, or stay where they were and leave an already overrun midfield to deal with one more headache?

Messi has come to occupy this role with increasing regularity. That semifinal defeat against Inter last season probably showed Guardiola that this was the way to go. Inter easily dealt with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a more traditional number 9, over the two legs, and neutered Messi's threat from the wing by playing deep and doubling up on him.

And so, this season, Messi has come to occupy that false centre-forward position almost all the time, with David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez cutting in from the wings.

No one quite knows how to pick up Messi. Or, for that matter, Iniesta, who is forever on the move, flitting about across the width of the pitch, in that band of space between the opposition's defence and midfield. Barcelona's nominal 4-3-3 could therefore be construed as a 4-2-2-2, or even, if Xavi pushes on into that in-between band, a 4-1-3-2.

Or, if you assign fullbacks Dani Alves and Maxwell positions based on where they actually play and not on historical convention, a 2-3-2-3. Or, sometimes, when Sergio Busquets drops so deep from his holding midfield role that he's practically a third centre back, a 3-2-3-2 - or a 3-3-1-3, or 3-3-2-2, and so on till you, the opposite side's coach, realise that this numbers game is actually pointless and that you will lose anyway, whatever grand plans you have hatched.

You can't achieve this sort of extreme flexibility unless you have players as versatile as Messi and Iniesta. And you need someone like Xavi, Guardiola's brain on the pitch, to bring coherence to such a system. The Ballon d'Or shortlist probably doesn't aim to reflect tactical trends, but has unconsciously done so on this occasion, to the detriment of players such as Wesley Sneijder, Diego Milito and Diego Forlan.

Consider the last time three players from the same club formed the top three was back in 1989, when Marco Van Basten pipped AC Milan teammates Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard to the trophy. They too were representatives of the vision of a great coach, Arrigo Sacchi, who revolutionised football with his refinement of the 4-4-2 system the emphasis being on zonal marking and pressing.

In World Cup years, a World Cup winner invariably wins the Ballon d'Or. In the last five World Cup years, this has been the case four times, 1994 winner Hristo Stoichkov the only exception. The FIFA World Player of the Year award, meanwhile, has gone to a World Cup winner four times out of four — Romario in 1994, Zinedine Zidane in 1998, Ronaldo in 2002 and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.

And therefore, this year, when the two awards combine for the first time to give football one undisputed individual champion (emulating the reunified chess world championship, in a way), it seems likely that one of the two Spanish geniuses in the shortlist will take the title.

But then again, they are up against Messi. Consider his stats — 47 goals in 53 games last season, already 27 in 24 this season, and a hatful of assists.

He may not have scored a goal at the World Cup, but to dwell too much upon that would detract from his overall form in South Africa, where he was easily the best player in a disjointed Argentina side, imperious in the group stages and ill-served by his teammates in that fateful 4-0 defeat to Germany.

Would Messi deserve a second Ballon d'Or? Definitely. Ahead of Xavi? Maybe not.

It is no coincidence that Xavi wasn't part of the starting line-up in the only two matches Barcelona has dropped points this season. Without that emblematic figure in the middle of the park, the rest of the team looks a little less assured, less fluent. When Xavi plays, he is always the man making the most passes. Always.

Iniesta sees a pocket of space, needs a player to bounce the ball off for a one-two, sees Xavi come up alongside him. Busquets breaks down an attack, looks up, passes to Xavi. Gerard Pique steps forward from the back, measures the options, gives it to Xavi anyway. Victor Valdes bounces the ball in his area, looks for someone to roll the ball out to, sees Xavi jogging back, calling for the ball.

Xavi is constantly on the move, always in the right place, with the softest of feet to cushion the ball dead, the nimblest of feet to skip away from a midfield opponent and open up a channel of space to pass the ball into. He possesses the patience of a sniper, and knows he must play 10 simple sideways passes for that one opening to emerge and let him play that unerring through-ball.

In South Africa, Xavi was played out of position, too far up the pitch to see all of his teammates like he usually does, and never quite looked at his most comfortable. He was finding teammates with 85 per cent of his passes, instead of his usual 90 or 95. Yet, he still made the most passes, covered the biggest distances on the pitch, and defended diligently as he always does. He might not have scored the headline-grabbing goals, but was probably Spain's most important player. He defined how Spain played in that tournament (and in Euro 2008), and defines the way Barcelona plays as well.

Guardiola was that player in Johan Cruyff's Barcelona of the 90s. Xavi is that player now. Iniesta is surely becoming the heartbeat for the next decade. “You're going to retire me,” Guardiola told Xavi after Iniesta's first training session with Barcelona. “This lad is going to retire us all.”

Iniesta has the positional sense and tenacity to play deep in midfield — as he did early in his career — and also a natural skill at dribbling and an intuition for finding space with his movement to play on the wing or behind the strikers. In Vicente Del Bosque's Spain side, and in Guardiola's Barcelona, he defies labelling.

And so, in the climactic stages of the World Cup, as matches wore on and opponents tired of all that ball-chasing, Iniesta became the pivotal player. His movement disrupted the most organised defences and opened up chances for the rest of the team and himself.

It was no coincidence that Iniesta scored the decisive, late goals in both the 2008-09 Champions League semifinal against Chelsea and in the World Cup final. Or that he wasn't available when Barcelona lost to Inter Milan last season.

It would be fitting if that triumphant strike at Johannesburg won Iniesta the Ballon d'Or. But then again, he does fall a little short of the other two in terms of overall performance over the year, considering he was injured for large swathes of the 2009-10 season.

In a way, all three deserve the FIFA Ballon d'Or. Two in a row for Messi would be apt recognition of his genius. A vote for Xavi is a vote for the best midfielder in the world and one of the best of all time, and the fulcrum of two genuinely great teams. A vote for Iniesta would echo the deafening applause that has greeted the little man at every football ground in Spain this season, gratitude overwhelming the bitterest of rivalries.