By Martin Ernst
“If Bayern and Barcelona meet in the Champions League semi-finals, it is likely that he will be playing for one of the two teams,” predicted Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
These words were not about Javi Martinez, a known transfer target of the Catalans. They were concerning Aleksandr Hleb, now of BATE Borisov, whom Bayern Munich will meet on Tuesday in Minsk.
Half of Europe was interested in the then 27-year-old Arsenal midfielder. He eventually opted for a move to Camp Nou for an estimated €20 million. Today, he is rather generously rated at €2.5m by Transfermarkt, and many will be wondering how different Hleb’s career would have been if he had picked the red of Bayern over the Blaugrana of Barca.
Until his move to Catalunya, everything was going swimmingly for the Belarusian. In 2000, he left BATE, the club that had bred him, for the Stuttgart reserve ranks. A year later, Felix Magath called him into the first-team where, alongside the likes of Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Hinkel and Kevin Kuranyi, he finished second in the Bundesliga and qualified for the Champions League.
Way back when | Hleb was one of Europe’s hottest properties in north London
In his four seasons at the Mercedes Benz Arena, he played 137 league games, scoring 13 goals and providing 13 assists. He had developed a reputation as an excellent technician, and it had not gone unnoticed.
Arsenal came calling in 2005, and Hleb made the move to the Premier League, which proved to be the right decision. His time with the Gunners could well be classed as the most successful period of his career. The Belarusian fit perfectly into Arsene Wenger’s cast of athletes, scoring seven Premier League goals in 89 games, and reaching the Champions League final in 2006.
He was then at the peak of his powers, and Pep Guardiola, who had just replaced Frank Rijkaard at Camp Nou in the summer of 2008, stated his desire for the player, who then had a choice: Bayern or Barca.
Hleb’s answer is well-known, and so are its consequences. While Hleb could celebrate the Champions League and Liga double in 2009, he was confined to a bit-part role, starting just a few times and making a mere 19 appearances in his first season, as he struggled to ever warm to life at the club.
Frustrated with the situation, Hleb recalled in 2011: “I was upset when I could not play. Now I know that Barca are great because every player scales back their selfishness. At the time I could not see it that way.”
During his time frozen out in Spain, a new quest began – the search for a new beginning. For the next three years he was farmed out to three clubs, including Stuttgart, Birmingham and Wolfsburg, but could not manage to find his old form.
At Stuttgart, Hleb failed to find the net in 27 games under then-coach Christian Gross. At Wolfsburg, the statistics were better, scoring one in his four matches back under the tutelage of Magath. But the lack of consistency and match practice were apparent.
And so, in January 2012, he was snapped up on a free transfer by Russian Premier League outfit Krylya Sovetov, with his contract at Barca having been terminated. That summer, he went back to his roots and his first club BATE.
A step backwards? Not necessarily. The Belarusians are playing among Europe’s elite for a third time and have enjoyed moderate success. With the returning Hleb playing alongside Brazilian-born Renan Bressan, another player of European quality, the club have been strengthened greatly.
And Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes has warned his troops about the reunion with the 31-year-old: “I have seen some games and I have been very impressed. He has now returned to the level he had at Stuttgart. He is certainly the leader of the team.” Lille would certainly agree with the veteran coach.
The 2010-11 Ligue 1 winners faced the Borisov outfit two weeks ago, and the underdogs inflicted a 3-1 defeat on Rudi Garcia’s side. The first-half in particular was a prime example of effectiveness and efficiency in the final third. With their excellent counter-attacking and coolness, the underdogs were 3-0 up at the break. Hleb had played a key role in pulling the strings in midfield – and he will do so once again when he faces Bayern, as he looks to show the Bavarians what they missed out on in 2008.
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