BARCELONA (Reuters) - Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola said departing Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta helped him to understand football better as he led tributes to the veteran midfielder, who is leaving the club after 16 glorious years at the Nou Camp.
Iniesta pulled the strings in the middle of the pitch alongside Xavi Hernandez when Guardiola was in charge of Barcelona for four years, winning three La Liga titles, two domestic cups and two Champions League triumphs.
“I want to say thank you. He helped me understand the game better, just watching him and what he does on the football pitch,” Guardiola told a news conference on Friday.
It was Iniesta who scored the crucial late equaliser against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2009 to send Barcelona into the Champions League final. The Spaniard then shrugged off an injury to help the Catalans outclass Manchester United in Rome to win the trophy.
He was also crucial to Barca beating United again in the 2011 final.
“I could say a lot of things but basically the pleasure of seeing him train, how everything was easy, I think the most impressive thing about him is how naturally he played,” added Guardiola.
“That is very difficult to find in a football player.”
The Spain midfielder also received praise from Zinedine Zidane, coach of Barca’s rivals Real Madrid.
“It’s difficult for me and for anyone who likes football. I don’t see him as a Barcelona player but a football man,” Zidane said.
“He is charming, very reserved and I like people like that. I don’t know him well but I only have good words for him and I wish him all the best as a player and as a person.”
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui said Iniesta was still one of the best players around and added he is rare in receiving universal adoration.
“He is a player who first of all is still at the top of his game. He has been a regular starter for us in every game and I don’t speak about him in the past but in the present,” Lopetegui told reporters.
“The manner in which he has won everything and his behaviour after winning has meant that he is given standing ovations in stadiums across Spain and abroad. That is something which very few other footballers in history have had.”
Iniesta is one of the most loved footballers in Spain after he scored the only goal in the 2010 World Cup final when they beat the Netherlands to lift the trophy for the first time.
He also played a key role in Spain winning the 2008 European Championship to snap a 44-year trophy drought and he was named player of the tournament when they defended the title in 2012.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Christian Radnedge