By Charlie Scott
Two years ago in South Africa, after 116 minutes of the World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands, Andres Iniesta proved the difference. Last night, albeit on a smaller stage, he was at it again.
His superbly taken goal in that showpiece in South Africa secured Spain their first-ever World Cup, and capped a fine performance that deservedly won him the Man of the Match award. But while he was not on the scoresheet for Spain against China on Sunday, his impact on the game after being introduced as a half-time substitute was remarkable.
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|64'||UNBELIEVABLE PLAY FROM INIESTA!! After showing fantastic control to dribble past three China players on his way into the area, the Barca man curls a fine effort over Zeng that crashes onto the crossbar.|
|84'||GOALL!! A great move by Spain is finished off by David Silva. It is all about the assist though. That man Iniesta cuts in from the left, drives past the challenge of Feng, and then pulls a perfectly weighted ball back to the unmarked Silva who finishes confidently from eight yards out.|
Every time the Barcelona attacking midfielder touched the ball there was a sense of expectation, almost as if every player on the pitch and every fan in the stadium knew, that if someone was going to force a breakthrough in this match, it was going to be him.
After coming close to scoring in the 54th minute, he went even closer 10 minutes later when he struck the crossbar following a remarkable passage of individual play. Picking the ball up on the run as he surged into the area, he juggled past two players, before killing the ball dead and curling a fine effort over Zeng that was only kept out by the woodwork.
The game was increasingly becoming a one-man show, as Iniesta set about tormenting China’s resilient defence, by supplying Fernando Torres with a glorious chance to give Spain the lead, before forcing Zeng into making another block from an instinctive effort with the outside of his right boot.
Then, in the 84th minute, just as it seemed China might hold out for an improbable draw, he provided a further moment of brilliance to set up David Silva for the only goal of the game.
Without Iniesta, Spain looked tame, with him - despite some wayward finishing from Fernando Torres and Alvaro Negredo - they sparkled.
In a match where their opposition packed their defence and midfield and clearly set out to play on the counter, it took some magic to crack the deadlock, and with teams like Italy and Ireland on the horizon in Group C of Euro 2012, it is the kind of magic that Vicente del Bosque will be glad to know he has in his arsenal.
In Iniesta, Spain have a player at the very peak of his powers who is capable of unlocking even the most stubborn of defences, as he showed once again against China last night.
It was not the first time, and it is not going to be the last. La Roja fans may lament the loss of Carles Puyol and David Villa; Xavi may still be the master orchestrator and Torres the finisher, but it's Iniesta who will be key to Spain's chances of another European glory.