Spanish Inquisition: Andres Iniesta - The Second Best Player In The World

Standing in for Leo Messi last night, the pale-faced playmaker put in an explosive performance that summed up the sensational season he is having, writes's Sulmaan Ahmad...
There remain two schools of thought on Barcelona: one that they rely on Lionel Messi, and another that they have mini Messis all over the park.

It doesn't really seem to be that simple. There was a period during February and March when Barca had a blip, and most of it was down to Messi's absence, it seemed; particularly due to the fact that he often came off the bench to save games with goals, assists and the general fear factor he provides that puts all the opposition defence and most of the midfield on the edge of their own area, and generally drawn towards wherever he happens to be on the field of play, leaving the rest to go on their merry way.

What many didn't realise was that for much of this grey period in Catalunya, Andres Iniesta was also struggling with injury. Spanish correspondent Lucas Brown already asserted that the diminutive magician was something of an unsung hero at Camp Nou, whose absence hurt the side in their slump, but he's a lot more than that.

So many thought that with Henry, Eto'o and Messi up front and with Xavi, Yaya Toure and one of Seydou Keita, Sergi Busquets or Eidur Gudjohnsen in midfield that Barcelona were essentially at full strength, and thus Iniesta was never a huge miss. This, bearing in mind that Pep Guardiola, in all his wisdom, has always been reluctant to put both Xavi and Iniesta in midfield to avoid running the risk of being too lightweight for the physically powerful nature of the modern game.

Perhaps the Albacete native has been a victim of his own versatility and professionalism, but what is abundantly clear is that this is a man more important to the team than many realise.

Last night, he showed just how Barca can cope without Messi, as Pep Guardiola produced the minor masterstroke of putting him in the Argentine's place on the right. Sevilla's defending was never the best, but Iniesta was involved in almost everything, including the beautiful opening goal he scored after less than three minutes.

His performance prompted Eto'o to declare him to be the best player in the world. "Whenever Iniesta steps on to the pitch, he creates a spectacle," gushed the Cameroon star. "He is the best player in the world." A bold statement from a man who has spent the entire season profiting from the audacious ability of and competing for goals with Leo Messi, but a telling one nevertheless.

Eto'o himself may have bagged a bundle of goals, but like Adebayor for Arsenal last season, he has been the beneficiary of a phenomenally creative unit, and has missed far more good chances than he's scored.

Thierry Henry, for all his resurgence playing as something of an old-fashioned inside left, is still visibly past his untouchable prime, and not as effective a player as Iniesta in his position.

Xavi, while the heartbeat of the team and unfairly overlooked for so much of his career up until his other-worldly Euro 2008 showing and scintillating form ever since, is too easily marked out of games, through little fault of his own. That's just who he is: a playmaker. Iniesta, meanwhile, is that and a little bit more.

Few would remember the impact Iniesta had as a substitute in the 2006 Champions League final: it wasn't all about Henrik Larsson that night in Paris. Granted, more often than not it is Xavi who is the hardest to replace in a positional sense in the Barcelona line-up, but in terms of overall quality, Iniesta runs him very close. Maybe close enough to be considered better.

Even Dani Alves, who was in the form of his life earlier this season, has not produced results as consistently as Iniesta. The truth is that, during this season, nobody has at Barca - nobody has in the world - except Messi.

Weigh it up.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been a superb goalscorer, but not the perennial threat he has been, and that Iniesta continues to be.

Kaka, like Cesc Fabregas, has been hampered by injury, but neither look to be at the peak of their powers, which they would have to be to better Iniesta.

Ibrahimovic, while exceptionally skilful and a consistent goal threat, doesn't bring out the best in his team-mates like Iniesta, or exude as much consistency and professionalism.

Arjen Robben, while making all the effort in the world to be more of a team player, still has work to do on all facets of his game beyond running and cut-backs before comparing with Iniesta.

Meanwhile Franck Ribery has shown a devastating combination of goals, assists, versatility and an unending reserve of energy, enthusiasm and work rate, but the question marks will only be removed from his name once he proves himself in one of the big three leagues.

Dider Drogba is the perfect striker on his day, but he remains a player whose form will seemingly always be determined by his mood, a fundamental and almost child-like flaw that will always stand in his way. Iniesta doesn't have that problem.

Then there is the Liverpool duo of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, who have as good a case as any on the basis of this season, but Iniesta's ability to stand out despite being shunted this way and that is incomparable.

Many of the above are naturally gifted in ways Iniesta never will be - they will hit their heights and surpass the little Barca boy - but they will also have their weaker moments; and at present, Iniesta has a cast-iron case to be in contention for the Ballon d'Or, with only his other pale, shy and awkward-looking team-mate standing in his way.

The shame of the game is that he's unlikely to make the list because he hasn't been anointed as any kind of 'special one' by the mass media - his hype hasn't and probably never will spin out of all control and reason - and is thus he is a lot more likely to continue his incredible work in relative obscurity. Maybe it's for the better.

Sulmaan Ahmad,