KIEV (Reuters) - Andres Iniesta’s uncanny ability to unsettle defenses was perfectly captured by a photograph taken during Spain’s opening match at Euro 2012, a closely-fought Group C draw with their opponents in Sunday’s final Italy.
The shot shows Iniesta, in full flow and dressed in the red of the world and European champions, closely encircled by five blue-clad Italians and is an eloquent reminder of what it can sometimes require to thwart the fleet-footed playmaker.
Iniesta will always be a hero to Spanish fans for scoring the extra-time winner that secured the nation’s first World Cup in 2010 and his silky skills and sharp thinking have helped put Spain within touching distance of becoming the first side to retain their European Championship crown.
Pale and unassuming, he has made a habit of thrusting himself into the limelight with some dramatic goals on the biggest occasions and his ability to glide effortlessly past his marker or find a killer pass is perhaps matched only by his Barcelona team mate Lionel Messi.
As well as his 116th-minute strike against the Netherlands in the World Cup final two years ago, Iniesta struck a wonderful 94th-minute equalizer away to Chelsea that put Barcelona into the 2009 Champions League final on away goals.
In April, he showed great composure to grab Barca’s third goal against AC Milan that helped steer them into the Champions League semi-finals for the fifth time in a row.
By his own admission, the midfielder, who has netted 11 times in 70 international appearances, thinks he should score more often.
“Perhaps I should have got more goals than I have,” Iniesta told Barcelona’s TV channel earlier this year.
“Sometimes when you are off the pitch you see a clear chance to score, yet when you are out there you opt for the pass instead. This shouldn’t affect my play, but it would make me a better player.”
His former coach at Barca, Pep Guardiola, agreed: “I think Andres has more goals in him than the statistics reflect but he does so much more than just score goals,” he said recently.
Iniesta was hampered by niggling injuries before Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup but this time he has come into a major tournament at peak fitness.
The slightly-built 28-year-old, who won his first cap in May 2006, has mainly been roving on the left of midfield at Euro 2012 and has combined dangerously with left back Jordi Alba, who is poised to join Barca from Valencia.
“It’s true that before both the last European Championship and the World Cup I always had a problem and this time it’s not the case,” Iniesta told a news conference in Gdansk before the Italy game in the Polish port city.
“I am in good shape and full of confidence and I feel like I am in optimum playing condition,” he said.
Although he has not added to his goal tally at Euro 2012, his performances in Poland and Ukraine have earned him man-of-the-match awards in the Italy draw and the 1-0 group stage defeat of Croatia.
With his pallid complexion, receding hairline and humble demeanor he appears the antithesis of the modern sportsman, but is the epitome of the talent-based team ethic of the world and European champions.
It won’t be a huge surprise if he pops up to score the winner again on Sunday in Kiev. (Additional reporting by Mark Elkington in Madrid, editing by Ken Ferris)