What has happened to Andres Iniesta? That is one of the big questions on the lips of Barcelona fans, who are becoming increasingly concerned by the sight of their iconic captain spending most of his time sitting on the bench.
Iniesta has only started eight league games all season, totalling fewer minutes (814) than 17 other Barca players including Jeremy Mathieu, Lucas Digne and Denis Suarez.
Although he has suffered injury problems over the course of the campaign, he is now fully fit – and has been since early February – but still cannot force his way into the starting line-up, playing only 25 minutes at Granada on Sunday and starting just once since the dramatic Champions League comeback win over Paris Saint-Germain.
Speaking of that Camp Nou Miracle, it is also notable that Iniesta was not even on the pitch when it happened.
Although he did start the game, when manager Luis Enrique decided to freshen his pack shortly after PSG scored in the second half, Iniesta’s name was the first he called to be replaced as Arda Turan was thrown into the fray.
The fact that Barca achieved their greatest success of the season with Iniesta sitting on the bench, watching powerless as his teammates completed their unbelievable comeback, could be seen as symbolic – an indication that the dribbling wizard’s days as his team’s midfield lynchpin will soon be over.
Not so fast. Iniesta should not be written off yet, because there are two important mitigating factors behind the underwhelming season he has delivered so far.
Firstly, those injuries. He missed six weeks of action after getting a nasty kick from Enzo Perez at Valencia in October, and had two briefer spells on the sidelines in August and January.
For any player, finding your rhythm after three injury-enforced absences is difficult, and that’s especially the case when you consider the second factor behind Iniesta’s relatively poor form: his age.
He will be 33 next month, and a decade-plus of relentless achievement for club and country are understandably taking their toll.
In modern football, it’s unrealistic to expect a player of that age to continue to play at their peak once they are into their thirties, particularly for midfielders who, by the nature of their position, generally cover more ground than anyone else.
So although his lack of appearances this season have been partially due injuries, it is also the result of careful foresight from manager Luis Enrique.
This time last year, Barca ran out of gas, were knocked out of the Champions League and nearly lost a big lead over Real Madrid in La Liga.
Enrique has learned from that experience and wants his players – especially physically vulnerable ones like Iniesta – to be at their best in April and May rather than January and February.
The season’s most important games are still ahead of us and, barring any more injuries, when Barca run out against Juventus in the Champions League next week, and against Real Madrid in El Clasico on April 23, Iniesta is sure to be leading them out from the front.
He cannot play 50 games per season anymore. But he can still play 25, and he is reaching the key phase of the campaign physically fresh. Expect him to roll back the years in the next few weeks.