There is little more to add on Andres Iniesta that has not already been reeled out on numerous occasions during Barcelona's recent period of dominance. The Spaniard is one of the finest midfield technicians of modern times and his abilities have been showcased at the highest levels of the game for the past five years.
The 27-year-old had been tipped for stardom from an early age, with Barcelona legend and now manager Josep Guardiola famously telling a young Xavi: "You will retire me, but Iniesta will retire us both.” Iniesta may not have retired Xavi yet, but the two of them currently make-up the most feared midfield unit in football for both club and country, terrorizing opponents with their famed 'tiki-taka' style.
It is truly a thing of beauty as they slowly dismantle their opponents’ defensive structures by playing continuous short passes in the midfield until at some point a helpless defender is dragged out of position. Then, with a gap emerging, both Xavi and Iniesta are charged with supplying the defense-splitting pass that will seize upon the fault-line they have opened up with their earlier play. The strategy has led both Barcelona and Spain to unprecedented success.
Alongside future Spain teammate Fernando Torres, Iniesta was part of a successful youth generation who won the European Championship at Under-17 and U-19 level in the space of twelve months. Shortly after, first-team football came calling for the prodigious young midfielder and he has not looked back since, winning every trophy in the game over the last ten years.
It has not always been easy for the Spaniard, who nearly didn’t make it at Barcelona because of his homesickness and has often been shifted out of the center to make room for others for his country, but Iniesta has made up for those struggles with career-defining moments, such as his World Cup-winning goal in 2010.
Whilst Xavi may take the plaudits for his orchestration of the Spanish side, it is Iniesta who for club and country has stepped up with a defining contribution when most needed. En-route to World Cup glory, Iniesta picked up no less than three Man of the Match awards for his performances, including the award for the best player of the World Cup final. All eyes will be on Spain once more this summer, but if the Iberian giants are to retain their European Championship title, much will depend on Iniesta.
Expert's Take: As an attacking midfield player, the best there is. Incredibly skillful & creative. His vision & awareness & ability to combine with other technical players make him a constant threat to all teams & opponents. One of the top 5 players in the world. -- Robbie Mustoe
Stats That Matter:
• 10 career goals for Spain, including game-winning goal in extra time at 2010 World Cup final.
• Barcelona is undefeated in 46 of 48 matches in which Iniesta has played this season.
• Iniesta’s streak of 42 consecutive unbeaten matches with Barcelona was snapped by Chelsea in the Champions League semis.
• Played for Spain’s U-20 side that reached the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship final in the United Arab Emirates, and was named to the All-Tournament team.
• Ninth in La Liga with 51 successful one-on-one take-ons in 2011-12.
Though the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” has been applied to countless mercurial footballing talents over the years, when one looks at the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, it has never seemed more appropriate. Packed into an incandescent club team with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, it can be easy to overlook the diminutive (Xavi stands, unassuming, at five foot seven) playmaker, but the quality and efficiency of his play always stands out.
His style is cerebral and full of intent; with the ball at his feet, Xavi thinks several moves ahead of the one that starts at his instep, forever looking for space in which to thread a pass and decimate a well-organized defense. (In a 2011 interview, Xavi outlined his thought process: “Think quickly, look for space ... I’m always looking.”) With Iniesta at his side and their on-field telepathy in full effect, the rampant, all-conquering Barcelona side of the late 2000s will never be forgotten.
Making him even more admirable is that in the modern era, a period of hundred-million-dollar transfers and club loyalty for a price, Xavi is a one-club player. Joining Barca’s vaunted La Masia youth academy at age 11, his 15-year professional career (began in 1997) is hard to match: six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, two FIFA Club World Cups and a slew of individual honors.
But unlike other luminaries high up this list, Xavi has matched these exploits at the international level. The cool, metronomic midfielder was a vital part of La Furia Roja’s cruise to the 2008 European Championships – even named player of the tournament -- and repeating the feat in 2010 when Spain edged its way through a tightly-contested World Cup en route to the trophy. With no title or accolade left to collect and his age (32) betraying his extraordinary technical skill, the 2012 European Championships will likely be Xavi’s last international tournament. What will he do for his swansong?
Expert's Take: Xavi is the heartbeat of the Spanish side. His skill is in controlling the tempo of the game via his wonderful touch and control, dictating the pace at which both Spain and Barcelona (two of the best teams in the world) play. Now, in the twilight of his career, he's starting to get the credit he deserves. -- Steve McManaman
Stats That Matter:
• 19 titles with Barcelona, most in club history
• Third all-time in appearances with the Spanish national team with 108
• Has scored 11 goals with the national team, including two in Euro qualifying
• Won Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup with Spain, and was voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008
• Xavi led the 2011-12 La Liga in passes completed with 2,716