x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iniesta, the silent hero

Barcelona's 2-0 weekend victory over Athletic Bilbao ended a slump which had seen them winless in six games.

Andres Iniesta is key to Barcelona's success.
Andres Iniesta is key to Barcelona's success.

BARCELONA // Barcelona's 2-0 weekend victory over Athletic Bilbao ended a slump which had seen them winless in six games. Pep Guardiola appears to have overcome the first stumble of his nascent managerial career with his glorious reputation still intact and Barca continuing to chase trophies on three fronts. The Catalans head the Primera Liga by six points and have a place secured in May's Copa del Rey final, but it is in Europe where their ultimate ambitions lie.

The return from injury of midfielder Andres Iniesta was as welcome as victory against Atheltic, especially when he won the penalty which opened the scoring. The playmaker is expected to start against French champions Lyon in the Camp Nou tonight, with the tie balanced at 1-1 after a tired looking Barca performance in the Stade Gerland. Lacking the strength in depth of Manchester United to fight convincingly for several trophies, Barca missed the extra dimensions Iniesta brings to their formidable attack. He is a performer of the highest calibre and his talents and experience will be as crucial as Lionel Messi's if Barca are to lift their third European Cup.

He was the only player to start in all six games of Spain's successful European Championship campaign last summer - an achievement which saw him honoured with a street named after him in his home village of Fuentealbilla, near Albacete. The player dubbed the "anti- galactico" by the Catalan press for his shy demeanour joined Barca as a 12-year-old and made his first team debut aged 18 in 2002. A Barca regular since 2004, his vision and speed of thought has seen him used in a more attacking role by new coach Guardiola.

While Iniesta is a key addition against Lyon, Barca will miss their warrior-like captain Carles Puyol who damaged ankle ligaments on Saturday. To compound the problem, Puyol had been playing at left back to cover for Eric Abidal. Lyon will be looking to exploit Barca's recently exposed defence, yet they have significant problems of their own. The Ligue 1 leaders lost 2-0 to Lille at the Stade de France on Saturday, and saw their lead over Paris St Germain at the top of the table cut to just one point. Worse, the slight hip injury carried by their top striker Karim Benzema, was exacerbated. Benzema, 21, a Barca target, remains a doubt for tonight.

His importance was summed up by the Lyon boss Claude Puel who said: "We have to keep Benzema. It's essential and a priority for the future of the club." Without the softly-spoken striker, who has scored 12 goals in 18 Champions League games, Lyon could fail to match their first-leg heroics. amitten@thenational.ae