Iniesta deserved to beat Messi & Ronaldo to European prize – but don't expect him to win the Ballon d'Or

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

It was something of a shock. When the winner of Uefa’s prize for Europe’s top footballer was announced on Thursday, the victor’s name was neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo. Instead, it was Andres Iniesta.

Barcelona’s mild-mannered midfielder has his fair share of admirers within the game, but he had been the third favourite to claim this award. As his name was called out, he looked as shocked as everyone else. And in accepting it, he was gracious, grateful and gratified – all at the same time.

A total of 53 journalists voted on a long list of players earlier this month and the selection was whittled down to three: Iniesta, Messi and Ronaldo.

The 53 writers, one representing each Uefa member state, then voted again on Friday, live on an electronic system at the Champions League draw in Monaco, to establish the outright winner.

And it was a close call as Iniesta came out on top with 19 votes, just two more than the Argentine and the Portuguese.

Messi gained the most nominations in the original vote, announced on August 14, while Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Iker Casillas, Didier Drogba, Petr Cech, Radamel Falcao and Mesut Ozil made up positions four to 10.

There is nothing flashy about Iniesta, but the midfielder has made the most of his tremendous talent to become arguably the best player in the world’s finest international team – Spain.

At Barcelona, however, he is unlikely to be considered as the finest footballer – at least while Messi is around. As one of his supporters, La Gazzetta dello Sport‘s Alberto Cerruti, told Uefa: “Iniesta is a symbol of the Barcelona side, even if he gets overshadowed, through no fault of his own, by Messi.”

The Argentine had received the most support in the original vote, in mid-August, but when the same journalists were polled again to pick from the final three on Thursday, they chose Iniesta.

And it would be hard to argue against the case of Fuentealbilla’s finest. Iniesta was instrumental in Spain’s successful European Championship defence, claiming three Man-of-the-Match awards – the same as Andrea Pirlo – and winning the overall MVP prize.

In a year of continental competition at international level, it is only fitting the prize should go to the tournament’s standout performer. Ronaldo also enjoyed a fine Euro 2012, but semi-final defeat to Spain probably ended his hopes of winning this award, while Messi was afforded a rare summer off without an international competition for the first time since 2009.

These three will now likely contest the Ballon d’Or at the end of the year and Messi, despite his summer off, will be the overwhelming favourite to make it four in a row. Cristiano possibly didn’t do quite enough at Euro 2012, in the eyes of the voters, to cement his claim for a second prize, while Iker Casillas is unlikely to win the award because of the sheer quality of the other outfield players in contention.

In a year of major international competition, Iniesta seems the ideal choice. Imperious with Spain and impressive as usual with Barcelona, his European recognition is richly deserved. When the world’s journalists are asked to pick a winner for the Ballon d’Or later this year, however, don’t expect him to be close.

On a global scale, less importance will be attributed to Spain’s success, with journalists from far-flung lands much more likely to vote for the spectacular rather than the spirit of teamwork and technical excellence embodied by Iniesta. That means Messi, perhaps Ronaldo, but not Andres.

Iniesta has already backed club colleague Messi for the prize, in any case, and systematically shuns the spotlight. So if, as expected, he fails to follow up this European award with the Ballon d’Or, there will be no drama. Whoever wins, it will be fine by him.

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'Carlos Tevez could help Manchester City go one step further' – discusses the Champions League group stage draw

The football season has returned in fine style across the continent. All that is left now is the first ball being kicked in the group phase of Europe’s pinnacle club competition: the Champions League.

The draw for this season’s group stages was made on Thursday and some of‘s best and brightest got together to chat about the potential happenings in this season’s edition.

Undoubtedly the highlight of this season’s group stage is Group D, which has seen Manchester City, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax thrown together.

Roberto Mancini’s side were handed a tough group last term, and were only able to finish third as Bayern Munich and Napoli progressed to the knock-out phase. Can they do better this time around?

George Ankers: “It’s almost the toughest group imaginable but, after being eliminated early last time around, Roberto Mancini’s men will be aiming to prove that they are every bit the match for the best of the best.

“City will also be itching to improve their Uefa coefficient with a successful campaign this year so as to make it into Pot 1 of future draws and avoid this kind of nightmare. The pressure will be on in every game; Ajax look small by comparison but City cannot afford a single slip now.”

So who will progress from the ‘Group of Death’? George continues…

GA: “Madrid are still a level above even this illustrious group of teams – but City will have learned a lot from their ultimately unsuccessful group stage campaign last season.

“The greater tactical flexibility that Roberto Mancini has been developing over pre-season should be a bonus in tight situations and having Carlos Tevez actually play Champions League football for a change could be the ‘extra signing’ that allows them to go one step further.”

Manchester United also suffered the ignominy of a group-stage elimination last season and have been placed in Group H with Braga, Galatasaray and Cluj. Is this an easy group for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men?

Jay Jaffa: “On paper, yes, it is, but as we saw last season these softer groups can breed complacency. Given their uncharacteristic failure last season, the players and management will undoubtedly refocus and I’d expect United to drastically improve.

“Their toughest game will be the away trip to Galatasaray’s hostile Turk Telecom Arena, but if they can escape unscathed, United should comfortably qualify.”

The reigning European champions, Chelsea, have been dealt a tough hand, They will have to get past Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus and Champions League first-timers FC Nordjaelland. How do the Blues’ prospects look?

Liam Twomey: “Roberto Di Matteo will be less than delighted with a group which affords his side little alternative but to hit the ground running. Shakhtar Donetsk provide a stern footballing challenge and a formidable return journey to Ukraine, but Juventus are the main threat.

“Their coach Antonio Conte may be banned for 10 months, but the Old Lady remain the strongest side in Italy, and return to the Champions League armed with the confidence garnered from an unbeaten Serie A season.”

Barcelona are perennially installed as the bookies’ favourites to seal the crown. Will the Liga giants be troubled, as they look to repeat 2011’s Wembley success with the final being held at England’s national stadium again this year, by Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Benfica?

Ben Hayward: “Tito Vilanova’s men would have preferred to have avoided a long trip to Russia, while the 2009 and 2011 champions won’t be taking any of these matches for granted and trips to Celtic and Benfica cannot be underestimated, either. That said, it’s pretty much the kindest draw they could have imagined.”

A French revolution has been seen in Paris this summer with the arrivals at the Parc des Princes brought in with a Champions League assault in mind. How does a France expert see Carlo Ancelotti’s side faring?

Robin Bairner: “Paris Saint-Germain will be delighted with the outcome of the draw. Although Carlo Ancelotti’s side have so far failed to fire in Ligue 1, they will hope to be a smoother outfit by the time the autumn comes around, and they can legitimately hold hopes of ousting Porto and Dynamo Kiev, who were two of the softer sides in Pots 1 and 2.

“For a team who has not competed at this level for nearly a decade, they will face stiff tests against more established sides, with Porto in particular boasting a fine recent record against French opposition.”

Finally, members of our panel were asked which teams they thought could be dark horses in this season’s competition…

JJ: “Zenit were unlucky to fall to a late goal in each leg of their Round of 16 game against Benfica last year and served up a treat of a double header against Shakhtar in the group stage. With Luciano Spalletti in charge, a trip to a crumbling Milan and a duel with the asset-stripped Malaga will be full of intrigue.

“If they negotiate their way out of Group C, they’re the team I’d be hoping to avoid in the knockouts – as much for the trip to Russia as anything else.”

GA: “I’d keep my eye on Schalke if I were you. The Germans have got a very satisfactory draw – an Arsenal still finding themselves after big losses, an inexperienced and Giroud-less Montpellier and perpetual also-rans Olympiakos.

“I think they could very well top their group with the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar running riot and a repeat of their 2010-11 run to the semi-finals would not surprise me at all.”

Cartoon of the Day: Mancini & Mourinho to do battle in Champions League Group of Death

Manchester City will face Read Madrid in this season’s Champions League “Group of Death” that also contains the champions from Holland and Germany.

Roberto Mancini’s men were drawn in Group D alongside Jose Mourinho’s La Liga winners in Monaco yesterday, along with Eredivisie champions Ajax and Bundesliga holders Borussia Dortmund.

City will be cursing their luck, especially after being drawn in the least enviable group in last season’s tournament, playing Napoli, Villarreal and eventual runners-up Bayern Munich before finishing third.

Mancini & Mourinho to do battle in Group of Death

'I couldn't have asked for a better start' – Modric delighted with Supercopa victory over Barcelona

Pepe and Modric with Spanish supercup

Pepe and Modric with Spanish supercup

Luka Modric is delighted to have won his first title as a Real Madrid player, following the club’s 2-1 Supercopa victory over Barcelona on Wednesday, and hopes it will be the first of many.

The Croatian playmaker came off the bench in the 83rd minute and helped Jose Mourinho’s side claim early bragging rights over their Clasico rivals by winning the season’s first piece of silverware.

Speaking to Real Madrid TV, Modric told of his happiness at wearing the Blancos jersey for the first time and thanked the home support for the rapturous reception he received during his maiden bow.

“I feel great. I couldn’t ask for a better beginning for my career at Real Madrid,” he enthused.

“I am very happy and I would like to thank the supporters for the great support during the whole match and for a great reception they gave me when I came on.”

Reflecting on the match itself, Modric was impressed with his new club’s performance and felt that they were worthy winners of the Supercopa.

“I think we did well, we deserved to win and we just need to build on this game and continue to work hard and play better every match.”

The former Tottenham star was thankful to Mourinho for allowing him to play in front of the home fans and receive a winner’s medal.

“It’s an amazing feeling [walking out onto the Santiago Bernabeu] and I’m lucky the coach gave me the opportuity to play today. In my first game I won a trophy, I couldn’t ask for more.”

“I’m looking forward to having a successful career at Real Madrid.”

Modric could make his full home debut against Granada in La Liga on Sunday.

Official: Granero joins QPR on four-year deal

QPR have announced the signing of Real Madrid’s Esteban Granero on a four-year-deal.

The 25-year-old, deemed surplus to requirements by Jose Mourinho, is Mark Hughes’ ninth summer signing as he aims to improve on the west London side’s 17th-placed finish last year. Hughes told the club’s official website: “He is a great player, first and foremost. You don’t play at a club like Real Madrid if you’re not.

“He has got great energy and is technically very gifted, as you would expect. He is an all-round excellent midfielder.

“He has been there from the age of nine, so this has been a huge decision for him. He is very well regarded there and for him to leave a club of that stature to come to us shows the belief he has in what we are trying to do.”

Granero spent two years at Getafe before returning to Los Blancos where he played 60 games in the last three seasons.

The midfielder will wear the No.14 shirt and added: “I love the passion of the English fans and from what I know QPR supporters are amongst the very best.

“When I spoke to Mark [Hughes] and Mike [Rigg], as well as Tony [Fernandes] I was convinced that I wanted to be part of this project, which has no limits.

“Players that have joined before me are as excited as I am about what QPR can become, one of the great teams in England.”

QPR have bolstered their squad in recent weeks, convincing Inter Milan and Brazil No.1 Julio Cesar to head to Loftus Road, as well as Park Ji-Sung, Jose Bosingwa and Junior Hoilett.

And Hughes spoke in glowing terms about the ambition of the club: “What we are doing at QPR is having an impact on players. It is probably true to say that if we had approached certain players three or four months ago about joining the club, the suggestion wouldn’t have been entertained.

“But people now know we are serious and we are trying to do something different here. And that message is out there now which is why we are able to sit in front of quality players and once we are given that opportunity, we feel we have a good story to tell them.

“That’s why players are deciding that QPR is a great option.