INJURED Liverpool midfielder Xabi Alonso could not disguise his disappointment at missing out on the recent Carling Cup final, but long-time friend and Wrexham striker Juan Ugarte predicts he'll be around to grace many more showpiece occasions in the future.
Schoolboy pals while they grew up together in San Sebastian, Alonso and Ugarte sat side-by-side in the Millennium Stadium last month to watch Chelsea lift their first trophy of the season at the expense of the Anfield side.
"It was our first experience of the Millennium Stadium and Xabi was deeply disappointed not to be playing," said Ugarte.
"It was a fantastic sight to see 74,000 people there and the noise they were making was incredible.
"Even Xabi, who knows all about big, passionate crowds at Anfield, was impressed and I think it hit home that he was missing out on a big occasion. But, as I said to him, he'll have plenty more opportunities to play in a major final with Liverpool, I've no doubts about that."
Ironically, it's Ugarte who will be involved in the Millennium Stadium's next major final after the Dragons last week won the right to contest this season's LDV Vans Trophy against Southend United on April 10.
The striker fired a hat-trick in Wrexham's 5-3 northern area final first leg victory against Oldham Athletic last month and the Racecourse club clinched their trip to Cardiff with a 1-0 win in the return.
Earlier this year Ugarte scored all Wrexham's goals in a 4-2 league win at Chesterfield and only last weekend hit five in a 6-4 win at Hartlepool United to take his total in all competitions to 20.
Not a bad return for someone who only joined the cash-strapped Dragons last October thanks to his 15-year friend-ship with Alonso.
"We were kids in the same school and we both played youth football with an amateur club in San Sebastian called Antiguo'ko," recalled 24-year-old Ugarte.
"I'm a bit older than Xabi but we were in the same boys' teams for five or six years before I was offered an apprentice-ship at Real Sociedad. Xabi followed me there, but he went for quite a big fee, as did Mikel Arteta a couple of years later.
"Antiguo'ko are now widely regarded as the richest amateur club in Spain on the back of those two players.
"Anyway, Xabi and me came through the ranks together and we both played in Real's reserves. Obviously, though, he was destined for higher things than me and went on to play in La Liga and for Spain.
"I was released last summer and another friend, Joseba, who was playing in England for Dorchester, invited me over for a trial. I played seven games for them in the Nationwide Conference and scored six goals but it was when I met up with Xabi again that my League chance came about.
"We got together at Stamford Bridge when Liverpool played at Chelsea last October and Xabi asked his agent to try and find me a Football League club. The next thing I knew was that Rick Parry (Liverpool's chief executive) had arranged a trial for me at Wrexham."
Immediately impressing Dragons' boss Denis Smith, Ugarte signed non-contract forms in November for the remainder of the season and has since gone from strength to strength - unlike Alonso, who broke his ankle in the New Year's Day clash with Chelsea at Anfield. "It was a tragedy for Xabi," said Ugarte. "He was playing really well at the time, the fans loved him and he had adapted well. The game here is much more physical and played at a much higher tempo than in Spain but he had settled in and was coping well.
"And I know he was loving playing at Anfield because of the atmosphere there for every game. But that's football. You never know when you are going to be injured and you just have to get on with it.
"Knowing Xabi as I do, he's mentally tough and he'll get through this okay. I'm sure he's set his heart on playing again before the end of the season and I know he's extremely ambitious and keen to do well in English football."
As Alonso continues his personal battle for fitness, Ugarte is steeling himself for Wrexham's battle against relegation. Docked 10 points by the Football League for going into administration less than a week after Ugarte joined the club, Denis Smith's side have just nine games remaining to secure their League One status.
But Ugarte, who also took some time to adjust to the demands of English football, is confident. "It's more enjoyable than in Spain, where football tends to be conservative and tactical. Here we have more of a long-ball game and there are far more chances for strikers like me.
"I don't like the cold much, but the football is great and if I can keep on doing my job, I'm sure Wrexham can stay up. We need a few wins and it would be nice to be secure before we turn our thoughts to the Millennium Stadium again. "Wrexham is a Welsh club, playing at the home of Welsh football against Southend United. We have to make sure we have more fans than them and that they make more noise than them as well. If that is the case, I'm sure we'll win the cup.
"But that's a month away. In the meantime, we must concentrate all our efforts on getting out of trouble in the league."
TALE OF TWO FOOTBALL FRIENDS
Name: Juan Ugarte
Age: 24 Birthplace: San Sebastian, Spain
Previous club: Real Sociedad
Transfer fee: Signed a non-contract agreement in November
Salary: Less than £1,000 a week
Name: Xabi Alonso
Birthplace: Tolosa, Spain
Previous club: Real Sociedad
Transfer fee: £10.5m
Salary: In excess of £50,000 a week