By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Last season, he was Barcelona's best player. This term, however, he has been a shadow of his former self. So, Andres Iniesta's improvement over the last couple of games represents a timely boost ahead of the Blaugrana's biggest tests. Finally, the midfielder looks to be back on board - just when they need him most.
It has taken a while. Iniesta initially struggled to make his mark under Gerardo Martino and found himself in an unusual position: out of the team and out of the limelight, the Spain star has had to play second fiddle to both Neymar and Cesc Fabregas in the early stages of the current campaign.
Fabregas' fine form has been one of the big plus points from Barca's season so far. The former Arsenal captain has played his finest football as a Barcelona player under Martino and he has been rewarded with an extended run in the side. Neymar, meanwhile, has restricted Andres' appearances further forward, on the left flank, where he was often picked under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova in order to accommodate another midfielder.
But in a season in which Xavi has been used somewhat sparingly and is no longer able to appear week-in, week-out, Iniesta was expected to pick up the baton from his partner in crime. So far, however, he hasn't been able to.
Andres Iniesta in 2013-14
|1||The midfielder has scored just one goal so far this term - a penalty in the win over Granada in late November|
|5||Iniesta has five assists this season. In 2012-13, he set up 13 goals for Barcelona.|
|19||The number of shots Iniesta has taken in La Liga. Only one went in - and that was a penalty.|
|24||The games he has started in the current campaign, out of a possible 39 matches for Barcelona.|
|33||Total appearances for the Catalan club in 2013-14.|
Early-season links with a move away to the Premier League and even Real Madrid were far-fetched; Iniesta is in love with Barca and his home is an example of that - decorated as it is with much memorabilia from his life in blau and grana.The midfielder did grow frustrated at a lack of playing time early on this term, but leaving was never an option and the World Cup-winning midfielder showed his satisfaction as he penned a lucrative new contract to stay at the Catalan club until 2018. "I am so happy to be staying here and I will carry on living my old dream by playing more years for Barcelona," he said in December.
Of 39 games played this season, Iniesta has started only 24 and featured in 33 overall. And in those, he has managed only one goal and five assists. It's far from the form which saw him widely hailed as the best midfielder in the world over the last couple of seasons. "The logical thing would be for Iniesta to be in the team," Martino said after leaving Andres out of the starting line-up for back-to-back games recently. "The fact he has been out of the side for two matches is circumstantial." Previously, it would have been unthinkable.
But back in the side, the 29-year-old showed signs of improvement in the 4-1 win at Sevilla last weekend and impressed again as the Catalans drew 1-1 at Real Sociedad on Wednesday to seal a place in the final of the Copa del Rey. "The pitch was really wet, but it seemed as if he didn't even touch the water," sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said of Andres after the first match.
If Iniesta can continue along those lines, Barca and Martino will be grateful because, as the business end of the season approaches, with the race for La Liga heating up, Manchester City lying in wait in the last 16 of the Champions League, and Real Madrid standing between Barca and the Copa del Rey trophy, the Catalans could do with their best players performing. And Andres Iniesta is certainly one of their best.
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