SAINT-MARTIN-DE-RE, France (AP) Andres Iniesta is the piece keeping Spain together.
With impeccable passes, great finishes and smart defending, Iniesta remains in charge of Spain’s midfield at the European Championship, the player everyone turns to in times of trouble.
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“Thirty years from now I’ll be able to say that I played with Iniesta,” Spain striker Manuel “Nolito” Agudo said. “He is one of the best players in the world, the very best in his position.”
Iniesta showed some of his prowess in Spain’s difficult first game at Euro 2016, when it looked like the two-time defending champions were set for a scoreless debut against the Czech Republic.
With three minutes left, the Barcelona playmaker came through with a well-placed cross for Gerard Piquet’s winner. Piquet called it an “incredible” cross, and Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said it was a “perfect” assist.
“I always try to take responsibility when I play,” said the 32-year-old Iniesta, who was voted the man of the match in Toulouse. “That’s how I enjoy my football and it’s no different now. It’s all about the collective, and in that sense having responsibility isn’t something I try to shirk.”
Effective as ever, Iniesta converted 85 of his 93 passes against the Czechs, and became the tournament’s most successful player with 10 victories, along with teammate Cesc Fabregas.
“Iniesta is a unique player,” Spain defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s a luxury to have him in the team. In key moments, he steps up.”
Spain’s second Group D game is Friday against Turkey in Nice. Del Bosque downplayed the fact Iniesta was left out of UEFA’s best 11 after the first round of matches.
“Not even the golden ball (award) is worth the respect of his own teammates,” the coach said.
Iniesta played a major role when Spain won its two consecutive European Championship titles in 2008 and 2012. At the 2010 World Cup, the Barcelona playmaker scored the winning goal against the Netherlands in the final.
“Iniesta gave us a world title and many more great things,” Spain midfielder Thiago Alcantara said. “It doesn’t surprise me to see him playing well like this.”
Iniesta has been running the show ever since Xavi Hernandez retired from the national team following Spain’s disappointing elimination from the group stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Sergio Busquets remains alongside him in midfield, but little by little Del Bosque has been bringing in younger players to replace the aging winners from the previous generation. Striker Fernando Torres didn’t even make it to Euro 2016 and goalkeeper Iker Casillas lost his starting spot to David De Gea.
Iniesta is an indisputable starter, and will certainly remain so for as long as he continues to control the Spanish midfield.
“It’s a privilege to be able to play with someone like Iniesta,” teammate David Silva said. “What a great player he is.”