Goal.com 50: Andres Iniesta (2)

Goal.com's countdown of the 50 best players of 2008-2009 is now reaching its climax. Second best of the year is another Barca boy: Iniesta...

3. Xavi (Barcelona & Spain)

2. ANDRES INIESTA (Barcelona & Spain)

1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Argentina)

One thing you can't really call Andres Iniesta anymore is underrated. For long enough, he was pale-faced, awkward and unassuming in appearance; so much so that his immense talent almost went unnoticed on the world stage. He would never be mentioned alongside the best players in the world, not until now.

This season proved an immense breakthrough for the 25-year-old, who has represented Spain at every level and was scouted by Barcelona when part of Albacete's youth system at just 12 years of age. He may not be a Catalan, but has now spent over half his life representing the Blaugrana, and no level of outside interest looks like coaxing him away from Camp Nou.

And if there's one thing this season's outstanding performances produced, it was interest. It speaks volumes for the epic amount of respect commanded by the likes of Barcelona, and indeed sincere loyalty from their players, that there has been no 'CR9', no Kaka, no Ribery nor John Terry saga in the case of Iniesta. It's not for a lack of quality to be named alongside those other modern superstars, but simply in keeping with his unfancy demeanour and unambiguous, simple way of life.

That he pays no attention to the interest in his marvellous ability has always been part of his charm. There has been something bubbling under the surface about the versatile midfielder as early as in 2005, but even in his final full season under Frank Rijkaard, despite delivering quality and consistency, he didn't break out the high-end, show-stopping performances.

That, he saved for Pep Guardiola. The new coach at Camp Nou made every Cule's dream come true when he got the consistent best out of Xavi and Henry to form an unstoppable team, but equally outstanding was witnessing Leo Messi and yes, Andres Iniesta, kick on to yet another level of skill, potency and pedigree.

With string after string of stunning performances - whether as the front-most of a trident in midfield, on the left of a front three or even on the right in place of Messi - Iniesta's versatility no longer inhibited his momentum. The difference between being one of the best in a relatively bad bunch in 2007-08 and being one of the best of Los Peps was all too evident when gauging the perception of the diminutive playmaker between this year and last.

Iniesta is, in his own strange little way, now one of the most popular footballers around - particularly among the die-hard fans. He is certainly a favourite with Real Madrid, as Merengues had even set up a website to take donations in an attempt to sign the player from their eternal rivals.

Somehow, Iniesta became unfashionably fashionable. He was now that 'other player', that unexpected one to watch, the real deal behind the other superstars. In that sense, while the world's pundits and commentators attempted to play down Iniesta's star status, in collectively hailing him as Barcelona's dark horse, were doing more than enough to make the case for him themselves.

And if his talent was still a secret to some as the season reached its end, his crowning achievement - one that will etch him into eternal Blaugrana folklore - was his injury-time strike that stunned Stamford Bridge, as he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-final.


Hero | Iniesta celebrates screamer at the Bridge

It set up itself perfectly. Having seen the Blues hold out for a goalless draw at Camp Nou in the first leg, and then going one up from a Michael Essien wonder-goal early on in west London, for all their exertion, Barca were heading out - yet a single strike would put them through on away goals.

Now, Iniesta has exceptionally quick feet, a great range of passing, threatening pace and such mazy dribbling that he can, at times, be almost Messi-like to dispossess. His fatal flaw as an attacking midfielder is his reluctance to shoot.

Numerous half-opportunities presented themselves over the two legs - the second in particular - and each time, Andres seemingly lacked the self-belief to take the chance. But when there was no other choice but to hit Leo Messi's lay-off first time right at the death, the result was unforgettable. And when you consider his meek and soft-spoken demeanour, so was the celebration.

That was his unrivalled moment in the spotlight, and he continued to dazzle as a star performer, in his first appearance back from injury, when Barcelona destroyed Manchester United in the final, also picking up the Copa del Rey and Liga titles in an unprecedented Spanish treble. Not even Real Madrid, with all their legendary sides of years gone by, have managed that.

It is a truly great side - surely Barca's best ever - but for all Messi's forecasted phenomenon, he will struggle to top this season, as will new signing Dani Alves. Xavi's rise to the pinnacle of playmakers has come at his peak, Henry's resurgence can't last too long as he reaches the end of a fabulous career, Eto'o has left and not everyone is yet convinced by Ibrahimovic.

Maybe there's only one player in those ranks from whom we can expect much more; only one whose individual evolution could help sustain Barca's reign at the top, despite seemingly impossible expectations set by the triplete and Florentino Perez's immense threat to their primacy.

As it is, Iniesta has more to add to his game, having not managed stunning statistics in terms of goals and assists. His magic was weaved purely by his scintillating skill - an inspiration for any player of any position, any club or any country that the very best will eventually always get the recognition they deserve.

Then again, maybe Iniesta will never win the Ballon d'Or - in this instance, nor was he able to win the Goal.com 50 - but being everyone's second favourite player year after year - the player absolutely nobody seems to hate or underrate - could put his stock higher than many a Galactico by the time his career comes to an end. And when that time comes, this past season will surely be remembered as the most important of them all.

2008-2009 HONOURS

Barcelona
Primera Division 2008-2009
Copa del Rey 2008-2009
UEFA Champions League 2008-2009

Sulmaan Ahmad, Goal.com

3. Xavi (Barcelona & Spain)

2. ANDRES INIESTA (Barcelona & Spain)

1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Argentina)