Saturday, 30 June 2012

Andrés Iniesta - Why Always Him?

Through the first 30 of 32 matches, the determination of where this enjoyable Euro 2012 tournament will sit within football history has been shaped by the constant evaluation and response to one overriding question - "is this Cristiano Ronaldo's tournament?" It looked unlikely, then things took a bit of a turn, and at one point it looked like a certainty, before it all unravelled at the penultimate hurdle.

For the final two matches, the focus has shifted to two of the supporting cast - Andrea Pirlo, perhaps the tournament's best player, and Mario Balotelli, who provided its most scintillating moment in the semi-finals. If they have another 90 minutes of the extraordinary in them, we may have to settle for 'il torneo di Pirlo-Mario' tomorrow evening. Failing that, it will be another title for the Spanish team; for their tedious tika-taka, the insufferable instant control, and monotonous moments of timely, technical perfection.

Given his enduring brilliance within a team chasing unprecedented international success on Sunday, one might wonder why an international tournament or Champions League season has never been preceded by the question - "will this be Andrés Iniesta's tournament?"

The answer is simple - because it is always Andres Iniesta's tournament.

At half-time during the 2006 Champions League Final, with Barcelona trailing Arsenal in Paris, Frank Rijkaard turned to 22-year old Iniesta to replace the defensive Edmilson. Iniesta had been unable to hold down a regular place in Barca's first team, though Pep Guardiola, then coach of the B team, had already told Xavi that "this guy will retire us all." Iniesta made the first of his bewildering big-match displays, pulling Arsenal's tiring team across the pitch, eventually helping create the spaces for Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti to score the goals to give Barca only their second European Cup. That was unofficially Ronaldinho's trophy, by the way.

Since then, Barcelona and Spain have set standards and broken records, leaving many legitimately wondering whether we are witnessing the greatest club and national teams of all time. Though there remain several consistencies between the two teams; Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Puyol, Pedro, Villa and the latest, Jordi Alba - one man stands out and shines above all as the truly indispensable figure. If Puyol is the soul and Xavi the heartbeat - Iniesta is the lifeblood.

As with all the true greats, for all the hundreds of enthralling performances, trophies and individual accolades, they are often defined by one or two single moments. It is arguably here, that Iniesta stands above not just his Spanish teammates, but even Ronaldo and Messi.

In 2009, with Barcelona on their way to a perfect six-title haul which may never be reached again in our lifetimes, a calendar-sextuplet may have merely gone down as the club's 19th La Liga title year, had Iniesta not intervened in the dying seconds at Stamford Bridge. With a Champions League semi-final defeat looming, and Barcelona having failed to muster a single shot on target in 90 minutes, one swing of Iniesta's right boot made everything possible.

Yet this glorious intervention doesn't quite constitute the definitive 'Iniesta Moment.'

As Spain stand on the verge of history in Ukraine, that they have made it this far is down to the final goal of the World Cup in South Africa two years ago, where Spain were chasing France's unique 1998-2000 achievement of winning European and World titles consecutively. In matches of such magnitude, even amongst sensational players, the sheer tension and realisation of the stakes can provoke indecision, breeding a tendency to pine for the finish line, even if that is a penalty shootout. Late opportunities reduce themselves to glimmers, as the weight of a pass becomes impossible to perfect, and the tense, tired legs allow balls to skip away, giving desperate defenders a chance to find safety. Every major match, these moments arrive and pass in an instant, never to be considered again. Spain had one such glimmer, when the ball fell for Fabregas on 116 minutes.

What happened in the next 1.5 seconds separates football's immortals from the rest. As when Zidane watched Roberto Carlos' cross drop out the Glasgow sky, or as Gazza spotted Colin Hendry advancing with intent on the Wembley turf - Iniesta, like a great snooker player, made his move with his next two already in mind. He ghosted into the pocket of space in the area, ready to receive. Control of Fabregas's pass was not a forgone conclusion as it skipped up to thigh-height, but the little genius had already taken his split second to observe around him, and knew there was only one square-inch of space he could manipulate the ball to if he wanted to strike unimpeded. With the impeccable sense of history that only the true greats can grasp, he cushioned the ball where others would let it slip away, and in the blink of an eye, crashed a shot past Stekelenburg.

Iniesta's career is littered with other moments and performances that propel him above most of his peers. His displays against Manchester United in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League Finals, and in the 5-0 La Liga destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, are among the best I've ever seen. A glorious goal against Viktoria Plzen in last season's Champions League will always remain one of my favourites, while there are countless moments in Barca and Spain games where crowds rise as he sucks defenders in and leaves them swiping at thin air, eyes always observing the situation around him, the ball obeying his every command.

In Kiev tomorrow, Iniesta has another chance to enhance his standing amongst the sport's historical elite. In 2008, he was one component of a team which dominated a tournament from start to finish in a way you rarely see, with the pace-setters often peaking early and finding the latter knockout rounds a mental step too far. In 2010, after a surprise defeat to Switzerland, his return to full fitness after a thigh injury was the turning point in Spain's fortunes. The team grew with each game, edging closer to their 2008 standards, until the Iniesta Moment settled the final.

In 2012, Spain have found themselves the target of criticism, occasionally fairly directed at their relative standard of performance, though absurdly attributed to becoming 'boring.' As teams continually develop and find ways to counter Spain's style, while the statistical inevitablitity stacks up against them, that they have to lose one day, the pressure intensifies with each match. In previous tournaments, Iniesta and Xavi have been able to replicate their Barca fulcrum, with the familiar Busquets security blanket behind them, and David Villa sure to score. With Carlos Puyol, like Villa missing with injury, Iniesta has assumed the role of picking his team up when they, on rare occasion, are unable to allow their football to speak for themselves.

In the semi-final, Paolo Bento set up Portugal smartly, and they admirably stifled Spain, particularly in the first-half, with a penalty shootout looking inevitable from early-on. Spain tried in-vain to break down their Iberian rivals after the break, though the tournament's centrepiece, hair in place and hands on hips, lurked up-field, waiting for his moment. At his tournament. As time wore on, Spain would become all too aware that Ronaldo needed only to receive the ball once, facing up to the back-four, and their dream could be over.

With Del Bosque electing for no recognised striker by this stage, and Spain's rushed midfield unable to link up with Fabregas further up the pitch, Iniesta assumed the role of pocket-picker in extra-time, pushing Portugal's ball-players further towards their back-line, and further away from Ronaldo. He scampered and scurried, retrieving possession, often down the inside-left channel, allowing Alba to provide a much-needed outlet. Spain grew more settled as extra time progressed, and another Iniesta Moment almost materialised, but for a fine save from Rui Patricio.

In the end, Iniesta's ultimate influence came in the shootout, scoring with apparent ease after Alonso and Moutinho had their efforts saved, and Spain went on to reach their third straight major final.

Looking back over the winners of Fifa's World Player of the Year, with the exception of inaugural winner Lothar Matthaus, and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, the awards have been saved for the most special and spectacular, yet uninhibited stars; Ronaldo (both Cristiano and his superior Nazario de Lima), Romario, Weah, Zidane, Rivaldo, Van Basten and of course, Lionel Messi - all floating free spirits within their teams, granted licence to do the damage and not restrict themselves with defensive responsiblities. Thats not to say all the above were lazy players, but their responsibilities in the team were exclusively with the ball at their feet and facing the opponents' goal.

Iniesta deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those attacking stars on his skill alone, though he perhaps stands out as the one who carries a tactical nous and responsibility when the opposition have the ball. Add to that his growing reputation as a leader, and its a debate whether there is a more complete player in the modern game.

Many previously debated whether Real Madrid's domestic title win meant Ronaldo could pip Messi for the individual honours at the end of this year, but that his repeated failure to win an international tournament could give the Argentine another crown. However, I wonder if the greatest player in the world will be holding aloft the Euro 2012 trophy tomorrow after-all.

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