Monday, February 14, 2011

Andres Iniesta - Europe's Finest

On Wednesday night Barcelona and Andres Iniesta visit The Emirates Stadium for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie with Arsenal. Barcelona and most of the other big guns of Europe have survived to fight it out at the business end of the continents premier club competition. It is at this stage where great players usually come to the fore, great players like Iniesta.
 It’s the 6th May 2009, Stamford Bridge, London, England and Barcelona are moments from exiting the Champions League at the Semi Final stage.  The Catalans need a goal to survive and the game is deep into injury time. The ball is delivered in from the right flank by Dani Alves. John Terry can only help the ball on towards the far side of the Chelsea penalty area with his head. After poor control by Samuel Eto’o and a swing and a miss by Michael Essien the ball falls to Lionel Messi. He squares it to Andres Iniesta who has taken up a position within the ‘D’ on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area. Andres Iniesta strokes the ball with the outside of his right boot towards the top right hand corner of the Chelsea goal. Chelsea are out and three weeks later Barcelona outplay Manchester United in a Rome final to become kings of Europe.
11th July 2010, Soccer City, Johannesburg, South Africa. Spain and The Netherlands are four minutes from a penalty shoot out to decide the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final. The ball is worked in from the Spanish right wing by Jesus Navas towards Iniesta who is loitering a few feet outside the centre circle in the Dutch half of the field. He delivers a deft back heel to help the ball towards Cesc Fabregas to keep the move flowing. Iniesta starts to push on towards the Dutch goal. It’s only seven minutes since full back Johnny Heitinga was given his marching orders by English referee Howard Webb and the Dutch defence have yet to re-find their shape. This lack of shape finds midfield playmaker Rafael Van der Vaart making a poor attempt at clearing a Fernando Torres cross on the edge of this own penalty area. Iniesta has not stopped pushing towards the Dutch goal. Van der Vaart’s poor clearance is picked up by Fabregas who chips the ball towards Iniesta who is in an uncommon amount of space inside the penalty area. Uncommon for this Dutch side who had harried and harassed any opponent in possession of the ball anywhere near their goal, or anywhere on the pitch for that matter, throughout Wold Cup 2010. One touch to control the ball and then Andres Iniesta swings his right leg through the ball. The penalty shoot out is not needed. Spain are kings of the world.
Prior to last summer’s World Cup many potential kingmakers were touted. Following his sparkling performances in last season’s La Liga and Champions League Lionel Messi was top of most lists. His 34 goals, fully 18 goals ahead of the next highest scoring Barca player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, inspiring Barcelona in capturing the former. If Argentina could shake off the poor form that saw them struggle through their qualifying campaign and make a charge towards the title many hoped that Messi could make the 2010 World Cup his own. In the same way that his former Argentina coach did in the 1986 version of the competition in Mexico. Argentina did shake off the poor and inconsistent form that dogged their qualifying campaign and they did perform above many pre tournament predictions. However their World Cup was ended in spectacular style by a young and vibrant German side at the quarter final stage and Messi never managed to reach the heights required to make his performance at the 2010 World Cup anything approaching memorable.
Others predicted that Kaka would be the lynchpin of a victorious Brazilian side to ensure that the samba boys would remain the only side to capture the World Cup outside of their own continent. Despite his somewhat inconsistent form at the Santiago Bernabéu since moving to Spain in 2009 after six years at A.C. Milan, Kaka was in good shape to shine at the 2010 World Cup. Brazil were solid if not spectacular in the group stages. In the second round they faced a Chilean side that despite finishing only a point adrift of them in the South American qualifying group were not at the same level as the Brazilians. Brazil’s campaign was ended by a robust Dutch side in the next round. Kaka failed to hit the net in the four games he featured. He was somewhat unfortunate to receive a red card in the group stage game against The Ivory Coast. However after sitting out the Portugal game through suspension he did receive a yellow card upon his return against Chile. Kaka’s performance at the 2010 World Cup will not be remembered.
Other more fanciful predictions hinted that Christiano Ronaldo or Wayne Rooney may set the World Cup alight while leading their respective nations on a glorious campaign. In both these cases however these players supporting casts fell well below the standard required to make an impact at this level, and in the case of the latter many were left pondering a rethink of his standing in the game so inept were his performances.
Spain’s success at the World Cup was no surprise to anyone, the current European champions were many people’s tip to take the title. However many suggested that their star player would be the free scoring Fernando Torres, or it could be Barcelona’s Xavi pulling the strings from midfield. If Spain were to capture their first World Cup their alleged dodgy defence would need to be tightened up, if that was the case maybe Carles Puyol could be the hero of their campaign. Very few observers predicted the influence Andres Iniesta would have on the Spanish team as they marched to the title. That is the enigma that is Andres Iniesta, he is a creative force that has won all the game has to offer and yet he somehow manages to operate below the radar of the hype that seems to dominate the game of football today.  
Andres Iniesta was born in the village of Fuentealbilla in Albacete Province, Spain in 1984. His youth career started with the local club Albacete Balompie. At the age of 12 he made the move to the Nou Camp to join Barcelona. It was Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal who gave Iniesta his first team debut in 2002 in what was a somewhat lean period for the Catalans. As the decade wore on and Iniesta and his generation started to come to the fore at the Nou Camp, Barcelona’s fortunes improved dramatically picking up four Spanish league titles, one Copa del Rey and two Champions League titles. In such exalted company at the Nou Camp it would be easy for any player to fade into the background with superstars such as Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Xavi. Until recently Thierry Henry also wore the famous red and blue and before his move to Internazionale in 2009 Samuel Eto’o was another big name in the club. However fading into the background has never affected Iniesta’s form, in fact the quiet no nonsense way he goes about his business on the field mirrors his persona off the field.
Diego Forlan did collect the Golden Ball (Player of the Tournament) at the 2010 World Cup for his commendable performances during Uruguay’s unlikely march to the semi final, however Iniesta’s influence on the tournament was seismic. He did not have the greatest of starts as Spain fell to a surprise opening defeat by Switzerland. Iniesta was omitted from the starting line up for the second game to Honduras. Iniesta was promptly restored to the first eleven for the final group game against Chile, and he scored Spain’s second goal when he delightfully passed the ball into the bottom corner as they ran out 2-1 winners. Iniesta remained a regular pick for the final four games as Spain won each 1-0, culminating with his winning goal in the July 11th final. Iniesta’s influence on each of these games was immense as he controlled the flow of possession from defence to attack. Everything he did was positive and he constantly kept the ball moving. There were times when patience was called for, especially in the semi final against Germany. Spain stuck to their principles and Iniesta and co. kept the ball moving, kept passing to feet, kept working the triangles. Their goal in that game came from a set piece and the head of Puyol but it was their passing game that kept the Germans moving in defence, working hard to attempt to cut off passing options and this passing produced the pressure that induced the Germans into conceding that corner.
At age 26 Iniesta has possibly another 6 to 8 years at the top level of the game. On January 10th of this year the 2010 FIFA Ballon d’Or was announced, Iniesta was beaten into second place by his Barcelona team mate Lionel Messi. Andres Iniesta has already won the awards that count World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, Domestic League and Cup. Andres Iniesta the Kingmaker.


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