In the biggest game of his career, Jordi Alba found the ball at his feet inside his own half. Spain’s left-back knocked a pass inside to Xavi Hernández and took off.
Alba stormed forward, straight-backed, legs and arms a blur as the Azzurri midfielders waded through treacle in his wake. Xavi slipped a wonderfully weighted pass into his teammate’s short stride and after a touch to steady himself, Alba side-footed Spain into a 2-0 lead in the final of the 2012 European Championships.
Years later, Alba stressed that he has no idea what possessed him to charge beyond his compatriots but the full-back finished with the unerring composure of a striker.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his proclivity for a forward surge, Alba started his career at the sharp end of the pitch. Having grown up less than two miles away from the Camp Nou in L’Hospitalet del Llobregat, Alba joined Barcelona’s famed academy La Masia having idolised the legendary forward Hristo Stoichkov.
The fuzzy footage of Alba buzzing around dusty fields depicts a skinny kid weighed down by an oversized red and blue shirt, inevitably the number ten on the back and often with the captain’s armband to complete the ensemble.
Yet, Alba’s dreams of rising up to the first-team of his boyhood club were quashed when Barcelona released him aged 15 for the age-old excuse of being too small.
Valencia snapped up the teenager from local side UE Cornellà in 2007 and – after a year spent in the second tier with Gimnàstic de Tarragona – Alba made his top flight debut in the 2009/10 campaign.
To begin with, Alba – at this point a left-winger – struggled to break into a Valencia side boasting the attacking might of David Silva, Juan Mata and David Villa. However, at half-time in a helter-skelter 4-4 draw with Werder Bremen, manager Unai Emery replaced his injured left-back Bruno with the natural forward.
Emery admitted that there was a reluctance from the 20-year-old to play so far back and ‘we had to start from zero in terms of defensive concepts’. But over the next two seasons Alba’s influence at Valencia grew, splitting his time between defence and midfield as Los Che recorded consecutive third-place finishes.
Within seven days of starting, scoring and winning the Euro 2012 final with Spain (as a left-back), Alba made an emotional return to Barcelona.
Having been schooled in La Masia and familiar with a host of the club’s players from the national team, Alba rapidly adapted to his new (old) surroundings where his attacking instincts were wholeheartedly encouraged from full-back.
In just his second start for the senior side, Barcelona were level with Osasuna when Alba was fed the ball deep inside the opposition’s final third on the left flank. Barça’s new number 18 fizzed a low pass across the box to find Lionel Messi who – unsurprisingly – converted the chance with ease.
Messi started to celebrate before checking his run and steaming towards Alba as the new teammates embraced – a sight which would become increasingly common over the next decade. Of Alba’s 43 La Liga assists in a Barcelona shirt, no player has benefitted more than the Argentinian genius.
However, even when Messi is not the recipient of Alba’s final pass, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner is so regularly the one that assists his assist. Messi has all but perfected the simple, ruthlessly efficient art of cutting onto his left side and chipping the ball into Alba’s path – once the Spaniard has burst in behind the defence – so the left-back can tee up a teammate for a tap-in.
Alba credits the otherworldly talent of his South American colleague for their unparalleled connection, summing it up with: “Getting along with the best in the world is very easy.”
While Alba’s link with Messi is practically telepathic, the Euro winner endured a rather less fluent relationship with the man Barcelona bought to replace their number ten, Neymar.
The Brazilian superstar arrived in Catalonia the year after Alba and the pair supposedly enjoyed a fractious relationship as teammates – much was made when Neymar was caught hurling an expletive-laden insult Alba’s away during a match.
Even though the club would enjoy huge success with the pair in the team, Neymar’s positioning high on the left somewhat limited Alba’s freedom down that flank.
Following his world-record sale, Alba claimed that, without Neymar, ‘honestly, it’s much better for me’, explaining to El Mundo Deportivo: “By recovering the lane more for me it is phenomenal and I feel very comfortable and that shows in the field. I’m enjoying the way I haven’t enjoyed it for a long time.”
Alba’s only Champions League triumph came in 2015 while Neymar made up one third of the fabled attacking trident alongside Messi and Luis Suárez. The Spaniard also fostered a testing relationship with the manager of that side, Luis Enrique. This spilled over into the national team set up when new Spain boss Enrique surprisingly overlooked Alba for La Roja’s first four games after the 2018 World Cup.
Ultimately, he was forced to recall his former player after Alba discovered the best form of his career under Enrique’s replacement, Ernesto Valverde – who took over in the summer of 2017, the same window Neymar left for Paris Saint-Germain.
Across Valverde’s two full seasons as Barcelona manager, Alba laid on a staggering 25 assists in all competitions – as many as he managed in the five previous years of his career at Camp Nou combined.
For a player so reliant on an explosive burst of pace, Alba’s struggles with injury after turning 30 were a likely consequence and the 31-year-old’s time at Barcelona may be coming to an end.
Yet, regardless of the conclusion, Alba’s career resembles the plot of an ill-conceived Hollywood comeback story: having been cast aside by the club of his dreams, Alba returned, overcoming adversity from within the club to become the world’s best in his position at the peak of his powers.