Spain vs Croatia has the chance to be the most exciting game at the Euros so far. The race to be crowned the best team in Europe has definitely had its moments, but has also had its fair share of dour games, with less than two goals being scored on average per game.
A game between these two teams, then, who are two of the only teams to have scored three goals or more in this tournament, may potentially be one of the most exciting and technical games of the tournament so far, thanks in no small part to two Blaugrana midfielders who are vital to their respective countries.
Andrés Iniesta and Ivan Rakitić have been first-choice midfielders for Luis Enrique’s Barca for two full seasons now. They provide the perfect foil for both each other and heir teammates, and are special in the sense that they are both very similar and extremely different at the same time. Their roles are tailored to suit Lucho’s Barca and they complement each other to perfection in most cases, so seeing them both today, on opposite sides, with their countries’ hopes on their shoulders, will be quite a spectacle.
Andrés Iniesta needs no introduction whatsoever. Arguably the greatest midfielder of this generation, he also just happens to be the go-to clutch player for both club and country. He now has nine man-of-the match awards in international tournaments, in addition to a man-of-the-match award in the Champions League final, the golden ball at the Euros and countless other accolades over his decorated career. The things about El Illusionista, however, is that he is much much more than stats and accolades. That is what sets him apart from the Ronaldos of the game; what he brings to the team and to the beautiful game is so much more than his goals and assists. He controls the tempo of the game, he keeps the ball at his feet and never gives it away, and when needed he can provide that defense-splitting pass or that killer goal as well. Watch for him tomorrow, and blink at your own risk, such is Don Andrés’ magic.
On the flip side of the coin is our favorite golden-haired Croat. Rakitić was signed in Lucho’s debut season as a replacement for club legend Xavi, which in itself was a gargantuan task. At Sevilla, he was the team’s main creative hub, through which every play went. He had a killer through ball and knew how to trouble defenders with his vast array of passing, also having a knack for scoring goals with late runs into the box.
Lucho required something different of him, however. He needed someone would would co-ordinate well with Messi and Alves on the right, so that the former could cause havoc and the latter did not have to worry too much about his defensive responsibilities, knowing that the Croat would be there to bail him out. It admittedly took Rakitić a while to adapt to the demands and style of his new club, but once he clicked there was no looking back. Not only was he working his socks off to track back, he began scoring goals and getting involved in the play, forming a formidable trio with his partners on the right-wing. Last season he was the coach’s most used player, which in itself says a lot to his importance in a team that consists of the best football players in the world. Lest we forget, he was also the one who laid the pass into Messi’s feet for THAT goal against Bayern, the one I watch almost everyday.
Their roles for their respective national teams are a lot more important and they’ve managed to pull them off with some aplomb, with Iniesta adding to his MOTM trophy set and Rakitić scoring a chip-goal that Lionel Messi would have been proud of.
Yes, there are other star players on both teams and yes, this isn’t a straight up battle between these two midfielders. It’s worth noting, though, that with the midfield prowess each team possesses, the result will probably come down to which midfield asserts its dominance, and these maestros will be at the heart of it. In Berlin, two years ago, Iniesta set up Rakitić for the opener in the Champions League final. Today, they will stand on opposing ends, each trying to dictate the game and bend the result to his will. It’s the battle of the midfield maestros, and I can’t wait to see who comes out on top.