THE BLOG
11/06/2015 13:28 BST | Updated 11/06/2016 06:59 BST

Ivan Rakitic Has Proven Himself a Worthy Successor to King Xavi

Breaking through in the Barcelona first-team is never easy, especially for a central midfielder. After all, this is a side who have showcased some of the most technically gifted footballers this planet has ever seen. For Ivan Rakitic, signed by the Catalans last summer for £20m from Sevilla, the pressure to excel was immense. The Croatian had just enjoyed a stellar campaign with the Andulucians, but the step-up required to succeed at the Nou Camp was undeniable.

Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi have deservedly exhausted superlatives this season - 121 goals between a trio of players will tend to do that - but praise too must be afforded to Rakitic, the classy playmaker who has proven himself to be a worthy successor to the departed King Xavi.

The rationale behind Rakitic's purchase was simple; he was to provide the work-rate and dynamism not possible for the aging, battle-hardened limbs of Xavi. It has certainly worked too. With Sergio Busquets serving as the unshakable barrier in midfield, while Andres Iniesta continues to flourish in an advanced role, Rakitic is the engine of Barcelona's midfield trio.

However, he is not just there to press and run. Rakitic provides a versatility that has been sorely lacking in the Barca ranks and his ability to alternate between attacking and defensive responsibilities has steadily enhanced his reputation among the Catalan fans, and his manager Luis Enrique.

Not only can he execute the defensive side of the game responsibly, his capacity to bolster attacks has been eye-catching throughout his debut campaign with the newly-crowned Champions of Europe. For example, his goal against Manchester City at the Nou Camp came by way of running the length of the field, busting a gut to latch onto a pass from Messi, before expertly lifting the ball over Joe Hart to score an important goal.

Determination, presence of mind, quality in the final third; these are all characteristics that have exalted Rakitic's first season with Barcelona and are exactly why many have tipped him to succeed for many years, now that Xavi has left for the Middle East.

Earlier in the season, Enrique chose to drop Rakitic from the starting line-up for the El Clasico, instead opting for the vast experience of Xavi and Iniesta. However, Madrid's energy proved slightly overwhelming for the masterly duo of tiki-taka and Carlo Ancelotti's men ran out 3-1 winners at the Bernabeu. Then, Rakitic remained on the bench for Barca's home game with Malaga, which they lost 1-0. It became increasingly obvious that, without Rakitic's indefatigable presence in the middle, Barca lacked balance and incision.

Realising this, Enrique installed him for the game with Granada, which saw him score and stand-out in a superbly composed performance. Since Christmas, Rakitic has been virtually ever-present in the starting eleven. His burgeoning confidence has helped him establish an identity in Enrique's Barcelona and has played a key role in Barca's dominance over the closing months of the season.

The Croatian is 27 and has gathered a cultured understanding of football from playing in the Bundesliga with Schalke and his time with Sevilla. His instinct is to charge forward and instigate attacks - his penchant for a neat one-two is a particularly eye-catching facet of his artillery - but his selflessness in covering team-mates, as they pour forward, earns him even more praise.

The Champions League final against Juventus was a microcosm of these altruistic attributes. Rakitic showed his awareness of when to attack when he dashed into the Bianconeri penalty area and slotted home the opening goal, setting the train in motion for Barca's historic night. However, as Barca continued to press forward, Rakitic could often be seen on the edge of your screen, protecting the back four, sitting deep and sensing potential counter-attacks from the Italians.

It is exactly this tactical equanimity that has turned him into a vital cog in the Barcelona machine and the beating heart of Lucho's midfield. With Rakitic patrolling the channels, Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas are but as distant memory inside the Nou Camp, while life post-Xavi does not appear as disquieting anymore.

When Rakitic signed last summer, there was - perhaps understandably - decidedly muted amount of fanfare, behind the glamorous acquisition of Suarez. However, during Barcelona's spectacular Champions League celebrations, Rakitic took to the microphone and said that he now feels at home in Catalonia. The fans, packed inside their beautifully-lit stadium, roared with approval.

Rakitic now feels at home, and the Barcelona fans are ecstatic to share the passion with him.

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