COMMENTARY | There's a misconception widely entertained by media and soccer fans everywhere, but circulated mostly among Messi haters in a futile attempt to cut the Argentine genius down to size, that Xavi and Iniesta have made Messi the gre atest player of his generation, perhaps the greatest ever.
Their main argument is that Messi has not been able to duplicate his success at Barça with La Selección albiceleste, forgetting that he plays for a country where nobody, but nobody, wants to play defense. The argument seems to hold water, as during Barcelona's great five-year run and Messi's ascension to 'best ever' status Xavi and Iniesta, though playing mostly alongside Pedro, have won two European titles and a World Cup with Spain's national team.
But then, why couldn't #6 and #8 beat lowly Osasuna over the weekend while #10, apparently fit to play, was biting his nails on the bench for 70 minutes? (Memo to Tata 'Tonto' Martino: 1. If Messi can play, you do not keep him on the bench. NEVER. You don't send him in when you panic, just to save your behind. 2. Messi starts the game, with proper warmup, he scores his goal(s) and tells you if he needs a rest. 3. Stick to the script, or keep your passport handy).
Xavi and Iniesta are gigantic players, Barcelona monuments for eternity, but let's take just one moment to entertain the crazy thought that perhaps it's the other way around. What if it's Messi who made Xavi and Iniesta the living (playing) legends they are? What if it was Messi's drive and insatiability, his voracious appetite to score and be the best, which made them raise their game and keep up with the leader?
Again, why couldn't they beat Osasuna despite having Neymar, South America's second best player and Messi's heir apparent, doing his best impersonation of La Pulga ? It is true that Pedro played and Alexis did not (coach is still learning); that Fabregas (more haters than Messi and Alexis combined) had an atrocious game, the kind that makes people want to run him out of town; that Montoya and Adriano will never be Alves or Abidal; finally, that Martino may be great for Newell's Old Boys and Paraguay but not good enough for Barcelona.
But if we want the truth, we must admit that #6 and #8 are not what they used to be. Nothing lasts forever, and Xavi, the fabulous and ubiquitous Mr. Tiki and Mr. Taka, will be 34 in January. I will pitch in to pay for his statue at Camp Nou and hope some day he'll coach Barça.
Iniesta, only 29, is a puzzling enigma. Few players are more revered, by fans or foes. He plays soccer with unequalled, divine grace. Unfortunately soccer at the highest level is not an arts festival. To compete and win you need power, speed and stamina as much as you need technical ability. Iniesta seems a deer lost in the jungle. He knows, he wants, but he can't. It's sad.
Criticizing everyone's favorite player may seem unpardonable impiety, but at a time when he's in contract negotiations (and asking for a substantial increase in pay), at a time when he has the opportunity to be part, with Messi and Neymar, of the most formidable attacking troika in football history, Iniesta is little more than a shiny example of brilliant futility.
You may hate the messenger, but the numbers don't lie. In 14 games this season, including 9 league games in which he has played a total of 576 minutes, Iniesta has scored zero goals and has contributed zero assists. OK, let's make an exception and say that Iniesta deserves to be the only player in the history of soccer that should not be judged by his stats, but zero and zero is unimaginable and not acceptable. Playing only 33 league minutes more, the much-maligned Fabregas has 9 assists and 2 goals. Pedro, Pedro for God's sake, for whom the ball is an adversary, has 5 goals and 3 assists.
Spaniards will never forget that Iniesta's goal in the final against the Netherlands gave them their first world title in 2010 and will love him the same if he never scores again. The last goal of any consequence Iniesta scored for Barcelona was in 2009, when his last-second strike at Stamford Bridge put the Catalans in the UEFA Champions League final. Nobody wants to see it, nobody wants to admit it, but Iniesta is in a three-year slump, and his lack of efficiency and competitiveness may be the main reason Barça is not the dominant team it used to be.
It was painful to watch this legend struggle against a doormat like Osasuna. He's slow, he loses most of the balls, he does not create scoring opportunities, his shot attempts are pathetic. Because younger players like Neymar and Fabregas respect him so much they defer to him, play at his pace, play out of position, and the team suffers. Barcelona fans may cry all they want about what the team needs-a goalkeeper, a central defender, a replacement for Xavi, perhaps a coach-but the big question right now is this: would Iniesta ever find his game again?
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He has been following FC Barcelona since 1958, the year Messi's dad was born.
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