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THE MAN HOLDING THE STRINGS: Barca lucky to have Iniesta on its ranks


Barcelona are in a pinch right now. The club are in narrow battle to keep star winger Neymar in their stable, while also in a slow-moving transaction to sign talented midfielder Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool.

Those are important unresolved transfer problems, but at least Barca have checked one more important box on their list: keep Andres Iniesta.

Iniesta is not as glamorous as his more famous teammates like Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. And he is not as sought after like Neymar.

But keeping the 33-year-old midfielder, who could have followed the footprints of Xavi and enjoy playing football outside Europe, was a huge success for new manager Ernesto Valverde.

At his advanced age, Iniesta is no longer in his prime, and it was evident last season because he played only 37 games across all competitions, his least since becoming a regular in 2004.

But to his credit, Iniesta was reserved for European competition, meaning former manager Luis Enrique knows he needs what Iniesta brings to the table in big games and would not waste it on winnable games against lower table teams in La Liga.

What does Iniesta bring to the table? Since his arrival to the first team 15 years ago, Iniesta is expected of mostly one thing – control the midfield.

Ironically, to control that middle part of the pitch, Iniesta has to do a lot. He needs to defend, to pass, to create and sometimes even score so he can keep his position as a threat. Luckily for Barca and Spain, Iniesta can do it all, and can do it well.

Iniesta did not earn nicknames like “El Ilusionista” (The Illusionist) or “El Cerebro” (The Brain) for nothing. Former Argentina playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme described Iniesta as “the one who plays this game the best”. “[Iniesta] knows exactly when to go forward, and when to drop back. He picks the right moment to do everything: when to dribble, when to speed things up and when to slow things down,” said Riquelme.

Sure, at 33, Iniesta is not the same player he was around seven years ago when he led Spain to two consecutive Euro championships and one World Cup trophy, or when he helped Barca win La Liga titles, Champions League trophies and Club World Cup championships.

He admits it himself, that he is far from his prime, but he also said he has “years to play at the highest level.” It should have sounded music to Valverde’s ears that Iniesta wants to stay, especially if they are to lose winger Neymar and miss out on another playmaker Coutinho.

“I have always said I would like to retire at Barcelona,” said Iniesta last month. “It is the club I have been at since I was 12. I still have years left to play at the highest level so it is too early to decide my future but Barcelona is where I want to be and hope to be for a long time.”

Keeping a 33-year-old midfielder should not count as a huge victory for a big club like Barcelona. But this is the Illusionist, the Brain, and the Magician we are talking about. So yes, congratulate Barca for not letting China, Qatar, or even Los Angeles pry their midfield maestro away!