By Max Reinhardt
The team that has garnered mentions as one of the best ever over the past three and a half years will be without one of its key playmakers for three weeks. Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta suffered an injury to his left thigh in January 25th’s second leg of the Copa del Rey quarter final against Real Madrid.
Iniesta has been the team’s best player at times this season, though numerous injuries have kept him from sustaining the level of play he achieved in 2010 when he was the runner up for the FIFA-Ballon d’Or award. While Barcelona’s system is built on Xavi Hernández’s passes, the veteran midfielder thrives because he has players like Iniesta to pass with. Additionally, the team benefits greatly from various individuals’ ability to create opportunities for themselves and others near the goal. Usually, three-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi handles this responsibility. Messi often finds himself surrounded by as many as four defenders, and while his trickery is often enough to overcome that, he has been shut down a few times this season. When that happens, the team relies heavily on Iniesta to become its most dangerous attacker. Suddenly sidelined, Iniesta will not be there to do that.
Furthermore, Iniesta has shown a rare knack for scoring game winning goals on the biggest stage, as he did against Chelsea in the 2009 Champions League semifinal, and for Spain against Holland in the 2010 World Cup Final. While “clutchness” cannot be measured, and it is entirely possible that a fluke—rather than a knack—has caused Iniesta to score multiple historic, last minute goals, this track record at the very least shows that he has the killer instinct necessary to pull the trigger in front of the goal, something that many attacking players frustratingly lack.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed Barcelona may have had too many midfielders; after purchasing Arsenal’s Francesc Fábregas, they have been forced to move the former Gunners captain from the midfield to the front line. Fábregas, however, has excelled there, and with star forward David Villa out for the season, the team does not have the depth up front that they originally seemed to possess. Several adequate players will see an increase in playing time with Iniesta out. When Fábregas drops back, Pedro Rodriguez, who was an established starter in last year’s Champions League winning squad, and youngster Isaac Cuenca, will fill in up front. If Fábregas remains in a forward role, rising star Thiago Alcantara will step in to the midfield. All of these players are adequate, however, none of them—not even Fábregas—matches the Iniesta’s excellence.
Barcelona is currently competing in three competitions: La Liga, Champions League, and the Copa del Rey. Barring any setbacks, Iniesta’s injury should not affect the Champions league, the most prestigious of the three. Barcelona does not play until February 14th, around the time Iniesta will return. Even if Iniesta is unavailable for the first leg, he will easily be back for the second. Furthermore, Barcelona has shown that they can beat teams better than Bayer Leverkusen, their opponent, without Iniesta. In 2010, the team ran over Arsenal (6-3 on aggregate) with Iniesta missing the first leg and all but the final minutes of the second due to injury. The team did prove beatable without Iniesta, but it took eventual champion Inter Milan to oust them.
For the same reason, Barcelona should also feel good about their chances in the Copa del Rey. They are tied 1-1 with Valencia heading into the second leg in Barcelona, and while Iniesta will not be back for the match this week, the team will still be favored. They could be upset, of course, but that could happen to any favored team, regardless of which players are missing. The tournament’s final is not for several months, so, should Barcelona make it through, Iniesta will have long returned.
That leaves only La Liga. This is where Iniesta’s injury could haunt his team. The teams they play in the next few weeks are not as good as Valencia or Leverkusen, but Barcelona has no margin for error, as they trail Real Madrid by seven points in the table. In the Copa del Rey, they could afford last week’s 1-1 draw against Valencia because all they have to do is win the second leg or draw 0-0 at home. They could also afford to draw the first leg against Leverkusen. A draw in La Liga, however, would result in dropping two points and either falling further behind Madrid or missing an opportunity to make up ground.
Moreover, it is the matches that one expects Barcelona to dominate in which they have struggled this season. Since the holiday break, they have drawn against both Villarreal and Espanyol. Earlier in the season they lost to Getafe. Meanwhile, they have played Real Madrid five times already this season and have come away with three wins and two draws, including two convincing wins in Madrid.
While Barcelona, even without Iniesta, can elevate its game for important matches against the likes of Real Madrid, Leverkusen, or Valencia, it is harder to sustain quality play over a larger time period. Messi, Fábregas, Xavi, and the rest of the team can lift a little extra weight in any given match while Iniesta is out. The question is, can they do that for three weeks of La Liga’s schedule, while feeling more pressure to win every match than they have in years? We will find out shortly.