By Charlie Scott
It has been a long and complicated journey for Andres Iniesta, from when he first arrived at la Masia from his home province of Albacete at the age of 12 in 1996, to contesting the Ballon d'Or award for the second time with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo 17 years later.
The midfielder suffered serious bouts of homesickness during his early time at the Catalan club, and on more than one occasion considered packing his bags and returning to his family. Barcelona and the Spain national side have reaped the benefits of his decision not to, as he has gone on to establish himself as one of the finest players of his generation.
|3||Number of Man of the Match awards at Euro 2012|
|10||Number of assists in Barcelona's 17 league games in 2012-13|
|2||Number of Man of the Match awards in major international finals, the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012|
In 2009 his superb goal in the 93rd minute of Barcelona's Champions League semi-final second leg clash against Jose Mourinho's Chelsea secured his side a place in the final, where they beat Manchester United 2-0 in Rome.
While nine months after that timely strike there was a coincidental 45% increase in the rate of births in Barcelona, the midfielder went on to endear himself to the whole Spanish population rather than just Barcelona with his impact at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Against Netherlands in the final Spain were running out of time as they struggled to break down a well-organised defence, just as Barcelona had at Stamford Bridge a year before, and once again it was Iniesta that proved the difference.
In the 116th minute of the match in Johannesburg he raced through on goal before lifting a fine finish past Maarten Stekelenburg to seal la Roja's first ever World Cup and send the nation's fans into raptures.
2012 was no different for Iniesta. Though at club level his only piece of silverware was the Copa del Rey, for the national side he continued to excel. The 28-year-old played in all six of Spain's matches at the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, and was named Man of the Match in three of those, including their 4-0 drubbing of Italy in the final.
|INIESTA'S INSPIRATIONAL MOMENTS
|Being named Best Player in Europe during 2011-12 by Uefa||Cutting the ball back for Jesus Navas to score for Spain against Croatia in their Euro 2012 group match and secure progression||Supplying three assists and scoring a superb goal against Levante as Barca thrashed their Liga opponents 4-0 in November|
Such performances led to him being voted Best Player in Europe by Uefa, not only for the tournament but also for the whole of the 2011-12 season. In second and third place were his club team-mate Lionel Messi, and the other man he goes against on Monday evening, Cristiano Ronaldo.
As Barcelona have adjusted to life under new coach Tito Vilanova, Iniesta's showings have never dipped. He has been crucial for the Blaugrana as they have made their best ever start in the Liga, and in doing so establish a vast 11 point lead at the top.
The attacker's innate sense of where and when to receive the ball and pass it place him in an elite group of players, while his consistently outstanding performances in vital matches for club and country separates him further from those scarce few with similar skill sets.
Iniesta once famously said, "I don't play the game to be number one, I play to be happy," - many believe he has now achieved both.
He's beaten his opponents to one prestigious individual award already in the past six months, so why not again?
INIESTA IN QUOTES
|"Andres is a player who has never liked the attention that comes with being called a leader, but he is certainly a leader on the field"
- Victor Valdes
|"There is not as much talk about Iniesta as there is about Messi, but I would like him to win the Ballon d'Or. He deserves it for his career with Barcelona and Spain and for his virtues"
- Luis Fernandez
|"I would not mind giving the Ballon d'Or to Andres. He deserves it for how well he and the team are doing"
- Lionel Messi