Remembering Alexander Hleb's ill-fated Barcelona spell

There aren't many common factors between BATE Borisov and Barcelona but there is one man who knows what it is like to wear the shirts of those two very different clubs.

In the list of Barca's treble winners, current BATE man Alexander Hleb will sit somewhere between the names of Martin Caceres, Douglas and Martin Montoya as players who were there for the ride, but had little impact on the course of the journey. In Hleb's case, though, it could have worked out differently.

Those who remember the midfielder's time at Arsenal will recall a skilful, bold player who could take defenders out of a game with a drop of the shoulder or quick shift of his feet, and was also a decent passer of the ball.

At times frustrating and perhaps lacking the consistency to be considered the finished article, there were nonetheless signs of genuine quality in Hleb; signs of a player who, with some work, could be of use at the highest level.

He would finish 2007-08, his last season at Arsenal, as the club's second-highest assist provider behind Cesc Fabregas, and it was a combination of that vision and potential, as well as the versatility of being able to play across several positions that led Pep Guardiola to make an express request for Barcelona to sign him.

"He's versatile, brings extraordinary tactical solutions and can play as a midfielder, winger or false nine. He'll fit in well and surprise a lot of people at the Camp Nou", declared his new coach at the player's presentation in 2008.

Guardiola threw his weight behind the signing early on, starting Hleb against Boca Juniors, Chivas and New York Red Bulls in preseason. A process of adaptation was evidently necessary but the initial signals were positive and merited a further look.

The manager's first substitution at Numancia in the opening game of the 2008-09 La Liga season, Hleb impressed sufficiently to earn himself a start in the next fixture against Racing Santander.

After the Belorussian impressed early in the game, though, a nasty challenge from veteran Racing defender Pablo Pinillos left Hleb with sprained ankle ligaments in his left foot. Time out was inevitable and he missed Barcelona's next six fixtures in all competitions through injury. In the meantime, Guardiola found his best XI.

The front three would be comprised of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi; the midfield a pairing of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, supported by either Yaya Toure or an emerging Sergio Busquets. The top-ranking support players for those positions -- the first names to be used in rotation or as substitutes -- would be Seydou Keita, Bojan Krkic and Eidur Gudjohnsen.

The subsequent contrast in performances was clear for all to see. In the opening two games of the league season Barcelona had lost one and drawn the other, totalling one goal scored and two conceded. In the six games Hleb missed they scored 22 and conceded seven, winning every match and just as importantly, producing high-octane, revolutionary football.

Hleb's absence had little if anything to do with the change, but it did mean he would need to play well and train hard upon his return if he was ever going to challenge the personnel who had been so faultless while he was out. Instead, his displays after the injury were quite often mediocre or worse.

In the months that followed, rather than working hard to earn his crust, Hleb spent more time quarrelling with Guardiola than making a positive impact on the field of play. As Graham Hunter notes in "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," he also repeatedly turned up late for training.

A notorious workaholic himself, Guardiola had made hard graft a key factor in Barca's resurgence; laziness would only ensure a player would fall out of favour. With superstars like Messi and Henry making the effort to listen, learn, and train with enthusiasm, Hleb's failure to do so left him looking foolish and drew attention to his lack of improvement on the pitch when given the opportunity to prove his manager wrong.

Opportunities weren't rare, either. By the end of the 2008-09 season, Hleb had started 19 games in all competitions and 34 in total including substitutions. For all that he would later complain that Guardiola never gave him a chance for reasons as implausible as not being Spanish, the numbers don't lie. Hleb's time at the Camp Nou was a failure because he didn't adapt and didn't deliver, not because his coach didn't use him.

Ahead of Barca's trip to BATE, Hleb has been chased for comment by the Catalan press, and his revised take on what went wrong during the brief spell in Spain paints a more accurate picture. Maturity appears to have given him a better perspective on the past.

"I didn't listen to Guardiola," Hleb told Catalunya Radio. "He would say to take Spanish classes to integrate myself into the team but I wouldn't take them. He expected one thing from me and I wouldn't do it, and the way I would say no was like a child. It was my fault I didn't continue at Barca."

Following his volcanic year in Catalonia, Hleb was loaned out three times, then eventually released in 2012. Having cost €15 million, he will go down in the club's history as an expensive mistake, but unlike some of the other players who failed to make it, talent was not lacking.

Instead, he is left with the regret of wasting a huge opportunity to be a long-term part of one of the best sides modern football has seen. A small chance to remind Barca why they signed him will be offered on Tuesday, provided he can beat fitness issues in time for the Blaugrana's visit to Barysaw.