Iniesta runs the show to set up a mouthwatering duel with Fabregas

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The Independent Football

The souvenir shops along the Ramblas keep their Ronaldinho shirts, in every conceivable size, nearest to the door, and supporters taking a victorious ramble the morning after the night of qualification for the Champions' League final were sporting plenty of them, as well as those celebrating Deco, Samuel Eto'o and the hugely popular Henrik Larsson.

But the Barcelona squad that squeezed out Milan over two thrilling legs and will now confront Arsenal in Paris on 17 May contain lesser lights who have dazzled the Nou Camp too, and one of them will already be giving compatriot Cesc Fabregas pause for reflection.

Andres Iniesta came through the junior ranks at Barcelona, three years ahead of Fabregas, but unlike Arsenal's young toreador, he decided to stay and fight for a place at the very hub of the team in central midfield. It was an awesome task, but after half a dozen games three seasons ago, then twice as many the year after, the 21-year-old was last season the only player at the club to appear at some stage in every one of the 38 matches that secured the La Liga title.

A serious injury to Xavi, the brilliant little midfielder who ran England ragged in a Madrid friendly, offered even greater opportunity in the current campaign, when Iniesta has become a fixture. Among those guests who saw him dominate the recent Champions' League tie at home to Benfica was Sir Bobby Charlton, not a bad judge of a midfield operator, who admitted with classic English insularity: "I don't know the No 24's name but he's a great player."

With Deco suspended for the first leg in Milan, the man with no name sat in the centre with the equally combative, though less talented Mark van Bommel while Edmilson behind them stalked the home team's Kaka every step of the way. Milan missed such chances as they created, and Ludovic Giuly took one to give Barça a huge advantage for their home leg. Deco then returned, but was pushed out to the right behind Giuly, while Ronaldinho stayed on the left and Iniesta remained where he was, running the show every bit as influentially as any of the bigger names-on-shirts.

He was outstanding again, the modern midfielder of vision and flair combined with discipline and hard work. "Graduated with honours" was the verdict of Sport newspaper, "Hats off to Don Andres. Close to perfection". For the rival Marca (based in Madrid): "Iniesta must be at the World Cup". So Barcelona will be unconcerned if neither Xavi nor Lionel Messi, who has not played since his battering at Chelsea in the first knockout round, recovers sufficiently for the date in Paris. Arsène Wenger will be well aware of the threat too, despite having picked out the more immediately obvious candidates in Ronaldinho, Eto'o and Giuly as the dangermen to his ambitions.

Yet Wenger is right to be guardedly optimistic, having seen the way in which Barça's defence was pulled around and penetrated in both semi-final matches by Andriy Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi. The centre-backs Carles Puyol and Mexican international Rafael Marquez may have been on a tightrope, knowing that one false move would mean suspension from the final, but each looked decidedly uncertain and Puyol was absurdly lucky to be awarded a free-kick when Shevchenko slipped him again to head in.

Much as Spain might have wanted little Villarreal to provide the opposition for the final, a wider perspective suggests that Arsenal against Barça offers the greatest potential for a showpiece. As Frank Rijkaard's assistant Henk Ten Cate put it: "Arsenal is a footballing team who like to knock the ball around like we do." Chance would be a fine thing and should lead to a fine game.

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