When Anthony Caceres was growing up and dreaming of being a professional footballer, there was one player he admired more than any other, a player he would base his own game on – Xavi.

The Barcelona legend is regarded as one of the finest players of the modern era, forming a key part of the Barcelona and Spain side that revolutionised football over the last decade.

On Tuesday night in Dubai, the boy from Sydney will go head-to-head against Barcelona legend, as Al Wasl take on Al Sadd in the opening match day of the 2018 AFC Champions League.

“This is a great opportunity that football gives you to come up against someone that you’ve always admired,” Caceres told Football Today.

“We all know he was part of that great Barcelona team that played, I think, the best football of modern times. I’ve tried to base a lot of my game around what Xavi does well, his calmness on the ball and the way he makes things look to easy and simple is a special trait of his.

“So it’s going to be awesome coming up against him and seeing what he’s like in person.”

While most of the focus in Australia is on the two teams – Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory – preparing to participate in the tournament, they aren’t the only Australians who will take part.

Five players spread around the vast expanse of Asia will also play their part as they also look to achieve continental success.

Matt Jurman (Suwon Bluewings), Aleks Jovanovic (Jeju Utd), Jared Lim (Kitchee), Mark Milligan (Al Ahli) and Caceres (Al Wasl) all start their campaigns this week, all with different expectations.

This isn’t Caceres’ first taste of continental action, having played six games previously with the Central Coast Mariners in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“I’ve played in the Champions League a few times in my Mariners days and I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he said.

“It brings a whole new challenge, and as a footballer that’s what you’re always looking for, to test your ability against players you’re not used to competing against and different teams that play a different brand of football.

“So we’re looking to do our best to represent the league and country in the best way possible.”

Caceres moved to Al Wasl on loan from Manchester City at the start of the 2017/18 season, and has played a key role in their blistering form to start the season, leading the league at the mid-season break over the new year period.

“It’s been unreal so far, I’m really enjoying myself,” the 25-year-old said.

“I got lucky, I came into a very welcoming team. From the get-go, everyone involved at the club made me feel at ease. I feel very comfortable here, I still have a lot to give and a lot to offer to this team and hopefully I can contribute to winning something this year.”

That challenge of winning the league for the first time since 2006/07 has hit a speedbump in recent weeks, dropping points against Al Wahda and Al Jazira, which has seen them drop to third, six points off Al Ain in top spot.

“Starting again after the new year we’ve found it difficult, and obviously it’s not ideal,” he said.

“I think we have a small squad, so we’re kind of restricted in our rotations and fatigue starts to creep in this time of year and that could be an issue. But I think we just got to remain confident and get back to things we were doing in the first half (of the season).

“It’s part of football I guess, you don’t go a whole season playing perfectly throughout so we’ve just got to re-focus and re-group.”

They get the chance to get back to winning ways tonight against Al Sadd, and while Caceres is focused on the 90 minutes ahead, he is already thinking about what happens after the game and swapping shirts with his idol.

“Oh yeah I’ve already claimed that one, no letting him get away,” he joked. “I speak Spanish so I’ve got an upper hand (on my teammates).”

Categories: People | Asia

asian champions league, xavi, anthony caceres, al wasl, al sadd

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