When the Spain team news was announced before kick-off, you would be forgiven for double-taking at seeing ‘Andres Iniesta’ written on the list of substitutes. It ended a run of 21 consecutive starts in major tournaments which stretches back to June 2010.
It was a sign of the times that Iniesta has been reduced to the bench and is one of the last players still going from the 2010 World Cup final, with David Villa, Carlos Puyol, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iker Casillas retire from international football or football altogether. Only Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos remain from the side that beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Johannesburg.
Fortunately for Spain, Iniesta, and all those connected with Spanish football, the future, once again, is very bright. In place of Iniesta was Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio, who, by contrast, was making his first start at a World Cup but already has two Champions League titles to his name.
“We need to focus on the positives, correct the small mistakes that we need to improve,” said Asensio who is always working on improving his game and perfecting his imperfections after sharing a training pitch with Cristiano Ronaldo for the last two seasons. “The pressure is on us, we’ll have to approach the game as a final. It’s win of go home.”
Asensio does not hide that he has desires to be the best players in the world, often referring to the “highest point” being what he aims for.
With enormous shoes to fill, Asensio wasted no time in influencing the game in Iniesta’s absence. Nacho won a free kick on the right wing and Asensio fired a precise cross towards the back post where Sergio Ramos and Sergei Ignashevich together bundled the ball into the back of the net.
Like many of Spain’s young players, Asensio appears to benefit from defences higher up the pitch. He plays as a winger or attacking midfielder and possesses the pace and trickery to harm defenders when he can isolate players one-on-one. There is also little catching him if one of his runs behind the defenders is spotted by a teammate. Against Russia all these traits were fairly useless given how deep the hosts were playing.
This is perhaps what made Iniesta stand out from the rest. His ability to win games, unlock defences and score goals against any kind of team separates him from the rest. He’s been doing it for 16 years with Barcelona and there is still nobody better in the world at breaking down a stubborn side.
While this next generation of Spanish players are incredibly exciting with their sublime skill, dribbling and shooting, the composure and intelligence of Iniesta’s elegant orchestration in the middle of the pitch may never be replaced.
As the game aged, so did that of Spain’s ability to get players in attacking areas, which also applied to Asensio. In the first 60 minutes Diego Costa did not exchange a single pass with David Silva or Asensio. This did not go unnoticed by Fernando Hierro who replaced Silva with Iniesta and introduced Iago Aspas in place of Costa.
With only a bit-part role at Real Madrid, Asensio’s future may not necessarily be with Los Blancos who could be tempted to move away to achieve his full potential. Liverpool have been strongly linked with a move for the 22-year-old, and he recently refused to rule out a move away from the Spanish capital when asked about his future. “Right now, the only thing in my head is being in Russia, playing for the national team and having a good tournament.”