Andres Iniesta didn’t manage an hour on his comeback game against Deportivo La Coruna, but it was 56 minutes featuring some of the finest midfield play you are likely to see.
The Barcelona captain, who missed the win over Villarreal, played a brilliant pass to help his side to their first goal in the 4-0 win and created chances for Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba during his impressive outing.
He was substituted to a standing ovation – hardly a rarity at home, but something he has also received at the hands of Juventus and Valencia fans in away matches this season, not to mention the Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu in 2016. As Catalan daily Sport wrote after the Depor match: “When he’s on the pitch, the sun shines at Camp Nou”.
These days, though, that sun appears to be setting. Iniesta has only managed a full 90 minutes once this season, his game-time carefully managed by head coach Ernesto Valverde. Even the applause from the fans has the air of a curtain call about it.
At 33, Iniesta’s time at the top is beginning to draw to an end, which is bad news for fans of Barca and Spain and spectators of the Clasico. The diminutive maestro often reserves his best performances for those meetings with Real Madrid.
With that in mind, there is an opportunity emerging for someone else to seize the limelight as the Clasico’s creator-in-chief, as well as become the fulcrum of Spain’s marvellous midfield. There are six such candidates we have chosen to be Iniesta’s heir apparent: three from Barca, three from Madrid.
Here, we assess their credentials…
Barca directors would be delighted to see another midfield star progress from La Masia and Carles Alena is the best placed to break into Ernesto Valverde’s set-up in the long term.
The 19-year-old has only managed six senior appearances for the club but there is real optimism about his potential, and he could be used more regularly from 2018 onwards as the fixtures pile up.
Alena is arguably a less attack-minded player than Iniesta, but aptitude with the ball and his propensity to score the odd long-range belter mark him out as a solid candidate to succeed the captain.
A Spain youth international, Alena signed a new contract in June that contains a €75million release clause, which goes some way to highlighting just what Barca think of his talents.
Gran victoria en el Mini!!!! Que importante y que gran trabajo!!!!Força Barça!!!! pic.twitter.com/5aVTV2XkNF
— Carles Aleña (@Carlesale10) December 8, 2017
Although much more of an orthodox winger than a midfielder, Deulofeu boasts the kind of creative eye that Barca will sorely need once Iniesta retires.
He has struggled to really make his mark on the team since returning to Camp Nou in the close-season but, at the age of just 23, he already has a wealth of experience in the Premier League, Serie A and LaLiga.
Iniesta was often deployed on the left of the attack during the Pep Guardiola era and Deulofeu could replicate that impact in the same position, especially now Lionel Messi has been moved back into a deeper number 10 role alongside him.
A big performance against Madrid would go a long way towards winning over any uncertain fans as to his ability.
— Gerard Deulofeu (@gerardeulofeu) October 11, 2017
The man most often described as the next Iniesta – a tag that’s never going to be easy to live with – Suarez is still ideally placed to take up his captain’s mantle.
The 23-year-old has played out wide and as an attacking midfielder this season, plundering three goals and six assists from only seven starts in all competitions.
Suarez made his senior Spain debut last year and will be pushing for a spot at the World Cup, despite being yet to appear under Julen Lopetegui and with some serious competition for the midfield places.
If he can find consistent form in the second half of the season, his place for club and country – ahead, perhaps, of Iniesta – could be solidified.
Back home!! pic.twitter.com/S63yVb32qB
— Denis Suarez (@DenisSuarez6) November 13, 2017
One of the brightest young Spanish talents in the game, Asensio left plenty of Barca fans stunned with his spectacular goals in the 5-1 aggregate thrashing in the Supercopa de Espana at the start of the season.
The 21-year-old has flourished under Zinedine Zidane and has firmly established his place in Lopetegui’s plans ahead of next year’s World Cup finals.
A winger with substantial pace, Asensio also boasts the sort of craft that has set Iniesta apart over the years and it is not hard to imagine him being shifted into more of an attacking midfield role in future.
Having already caused Barca grief this year, there is every chance Asensio could do likewise in this fixture over the coming years.
— Marco Asensio (@marcoasensio10) August 17, 2017
Things haven’t quite gone according to plan for Ceballos since his reported €17million move from Real Betis, but he remains a widely regarded talent in Spain.
The 21-year-old marries flair and an eye for a spectacular goal with impressive strength, making him a prime candidate to take control of future Clasico midfield battles.
When it comes to the international stage, he has great pedigree with the youth teams, having won the European Under-17 Championship two years ago before claiming the title with the Under-21 side this year, where he was also named player of the tournament.
Zidane has promised him more opportunities in the Madrid side and, while a spot in the Clasico line-up looks unlikely this time, this is a fixture he could come to control in future if given the chance.
¡CAMPEONES! Orgulloso de ganar otro título más con el mejor club del mundo. ¡Hala Madrid! pic.twitter.com/UgFvE8pCd0
— Daniel Ceballos (@DaniCeballos46) December 16, 2017
Italy’s former coach Gian Piero Ventura said he felt like standing and applauding Isco for his performance in Spain’s World Cup qualifying win in September, so he’s already on his way to taking over from Iniesta.
No player has benefited more from Zidane’s appointment as Madrid head coach and none has repaid the Frenchman’s faith with such an improvement in form over the last two years.
Isco has gone from fringe figure at the Santiago Bernabeu to practically indispensable for club and country and there is every chance he will be the key figure in a midfield packed with talent on Saturday.
Blessed with skill and vision in abundance, the 25-year-old could take control of proceedings against Barca if he is trusted with a starting spot.
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