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opinion

The heir apparent

Saúl celebrates his hattrick against Italy.
Saúl celebrates his hattrick against Italy. / Reuters
  • Saúl is staking his claim to replace Andrés Iniesta both for club and for country

The answer has been right under our noses!

The question for quite a while now has been how can Andrés Iniesta possibly be replaced?

Iniesta has brought authority, poise and drive to the midfield of both Spain and Barcelona for a decade and the concern was that there wasn’t a worthy successor.

It may not be the answer for Barcelona, well just yet anyway, but for Spain Saúl Ñíguez has emerged as an heir to Iniesta’s throne.

His emergence has been steady; Saúl first appeared in the Atlético Madrid first team back in 2012 before he was sent across the capital to Rayo Vallecano to toughen himself up.

A regular for the past three seasons, he’s has been the steady and unspectacular one in a disciplined four-man Atleti midfield. He sticks to the letter of the script written for him by Diego Simeone.

This summer though he’s been allowed an improvised role and creative expression as part of Spain’s impressive Under 21 team - and boy has he grasped it!

His semi-final hat-trick against Italy captured the game headlines and filled the speculative columns.

It is too obvious that he should be linked to Barcelona as they require a long-term replacement for Iniesta whose 32-year-old body rarely allowed him to play back-to-back games last season. The replacements last season were insufficient.

Saúl would be superb in a balanced midfield alongside Sergi Busquets and Ivan Rakitić. He’s way ahead of Under 21 teammate Denis Suárez but also André Gomes; both failing to establish themselves at the Camp Nou last season.

I’d argue that on this summer’s performances Saúl is threatening Iniesta’s previously unchallenged place in the national team midfield. We all knew he was good, but he’s launched himself to a different level. The extra space in a three-man midfield has allowed him to showcase his full talents and he looked like a man among boys, albeit talented boys.

The irony is that the ban on Atlético bringing in new players may actually be working in their favour. Griezmann and Saúl will remain faithful to a club that can’t replace them, a manager they fully respect and I anticipate both will be staying for the exciting move to the club’s new stadium next season. If replacements could have been recruited then it may have been a different story.

Maybe we’ll soon find Manchester United and Barcelona starting a petition to relax the ruling on Atlético’s transfer activity!