Andres Iniesta: Best Player in Europe?

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Forget the 82-goal Lionel Messi, and set aside the 46 goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, for Barcelona star Andres Iniesta deserves the UEFA Best Player in Europe award.

Now, before ridicule is poured on this seemingly preposterous statement, and before you scroll down to the comment box to have your say, consider the case for the 28-year-old playmaker.

The newly created award - it was only established two seasons ago - is presented to the player, of any nationality, that is considered to be the best currently plying their in Europe.

For the past two years the trophy as gone to Lionel Messi. Fair enough, I hear you say. The three-time Ballon d'Or winner is a phenomenon - and two more goals at the weekend takes his total to four goals in his first two La Liga appearances this year.

Logically, any player that scores 82 goals in a season should probably be a shoe-in for the award. But it's testament to the talents football supporters currently enjoy watching that this year's presentation is no foregone conclusion.

Hot on the heels of the Argentinian sensation is the Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo. Having inspired Real Madrid to their first league title in four years, toppling Messi's Barcelona in the process, Ronaldo has compiled a strong case.

In Ronaldo's own words La Liga "is the most difficult league in the world to win. To have done so against rivals as strong as Barcelona and to have finished nine points ahead of them, that was fantastic."

And while Euro 2012 was an individual success - a finals-leading three goals giving him joint-top spot as top scorer - Portugal's collective failure to overcome Spain, due in part to Ronaldo's penalty selection, casts a shadow over his season.

That leaves Andres Iniesta, the third and final nominee. The Barca star may not command the column inches like Messi and Ronaldo, he may not post the eye-catching goals total, but the diminutive Spaniard has quietly gone about cementing his reputation as one of the world's finest players.

The all-consuming Messi v Ronaldo debate has a habit of marginalising the game's other greats. But the likes of Iniesta should not be overlooked.

The Best Player in Europe award takes into account club and international performances. Immediately, any player that plays for Spain deserves consideration.

Xavi, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba were all excellent for Vicente Del Bosque's side, but one man was head and shoulders above the rest.

Going into Euro 2012, the Spanish press doubted their side's ability to retain the crown. Where would the goals come from without David Villa, and with Fernando Torres struggling for form?

The rare bright spot heading to Ukraine and Poland was the sensational form of 'the pale knight'. In Spain's warm-up games against Serbia, Southa Korea and China, Iniesta was superb, drifting past players with ease and laying one goals left, right and centre.

That form continued into the tournament, and Iniesta was named the Best Player of the Tournament as Spain completed the triple sweep of Euros and World Cups. And the playmaker's international performances on the biggest of stages only serve to highlight his credentials. 

While Ronaldo and Messi each struggle with international competition, Iniesta thrives. Every key pass, each key goal seems to stem from an Iniesta pass.

He's the one that gives his teammates a subtle prod in the right direction. While Xavi orchestrates play in the middle third, Iniesta carries his good work to business end of the pitch, the penalty area, and does so with a 90% pass completion percentage.

Against Real Madrid in the recent Super Cup El Clasico this was perfectly illustrated by Iniesta's assist for Xavi's goal.

Picking the ball up just inside Madrid's half, the Barca number 8 absorbed Busquets' pass with a soft first touch. Pushing the ball out in front, Iniesta drives at the Madrid defence, committing two defenders, skipping past the pair and slipping an inch-perfect pass to Xavi, who finishes first-time.

Such quality is hardly in short supply at the Nou Camp, but Iniesta is a primary producer. Stepping from the shadow of Lionel Messi is difficult enough, ask Ronaldo, but Iniesta has achieved the feat even while occupying the same team as the Argentinian.

The stats may pale in comparison to Messi and Ronaldo, but football is not a game to be merely measured by statistics. Remember Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson were each signed on the basis of their statistical merits. The number crunchers are useful supplements to the beautiful game, but supplements nonetheless.

For Iniesta, important contributions to the team often occur in the phases of play before goals. The deft touches, and intelligent movements, are no less important contributions to the team's eventual goal, but they go less noticed by watchers of the Pichichi table.

Last season, the Spaniard finished as runner-up to Messi in the Best Player in Europe shortlist. This year, after helping Spain to Euro 2012, 'the pale knight' deserves his time in the sun.

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Fernando Torres
Cristiano Ronaldo

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