Time for Andres Iniesta to decide his Barcelona future

Why Coutinho will be a perfect replacement for Iniesta (1:45)

With Barcelona agreeing a monster move for Philippe Coutinho, Janusz Michallik explains where he should fit in Ernesto Valverde's system. (1:45)

BARCELONA -- Dressed in his Barcelona tracksuit, Albert Benaiges, one of the Catalan club's finest talent spotters in the 1990s, couldn't go and talk to Jose Antonio Iniesta. It would have been too obvious. Everyone would have known what he was up to. Instead, he had to send Barca's delegate, who was more casually dressed, to butter up the parent of the ghost-white, skinny No. 5 who had caught his attention at the Brunete youth tournament in 1996.

The rest, as they say, is history. And what history: Andres Iniesta signed for Barca as a 12-year old and now, aged 33, is closing in on 700 appearances for the club -- more than anyone not named Xavi Hernandez. In between, he's won everything there is to win for club and country, most things more than once, and has been on the Ballon d'Or podium twice.

But less than six months after signing a lifetime contract at Barca, the fear in Catalonia is that the final chapter of Iniesta's Camp Nou career is already upon us. A move to China is drawing near.

"I've not spoken with Andres, but I think these will be his final months at Barcelona," Benaiges, now working in the Dominican Republic, told Spanish radio last week.

Benaiges is not alone. The feeling on the ground is increasingly pessimistic regarding the chances of Iniesta being in Ernesto Valverde's side when the new season rolls around in August.

"The sensations right now are that he's more out than in," COPE journalist Helena Condis told ESPN. "I asked him after the Chelsea game [earlier in March] if we had him here for life and he took that moment to leave his future more in the air than ever.

"In my opinion, given how he responded, he already has the idea in his head that he's going to go to China. [I think] he wants to end the season playing an important role in the team and then go out in style.

"If I had to bet, I would bet that this is Iniesta's last season at Barca."

In many ways, it shouldn't be surprising. Iniesta wouldn't be the first to trade in the demands of Barcelona for a more relaxing end to his playing days -- with the added benefit of boosting his salary in the process.

Three years ago, it was a teary-eyed Xavi bidding farewell after helping the club win the treble in Luis Enrique's first year at the club. Asked by ESPN if he had any advice for Iniesta as he weighs up whether to stay or go, Xavi said he didn't. He said it was a hugely personal decision and one which each person has to make on their own.

As ever, Xavi's right. The situation when he said "it was time to leave" Barcelona in 2015 is not comparable to the one Iniesta is facing in 2018, besides the fact they both could, quite fittingly, given the sheer scale of their success with the club, say adios with a treble.

Xavi had been knocked out of the team. The Xaviesta axis was no more. Instead, he had been reduced to a bit-part role, the backup to Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. By the time he booked his flights to Qatar, he'd started just two Champions League games and had been 35 for several months.

Iniesta's not even 34 until May -- and he doesn't look like a man about to lose his place in the team.

"He's still demonstrating that he can play at the highest level," Condis added. "He is a key player in Valverde's team. You notice a huge difference when he's in the team and when he's not. This season, for me, he's been Barca's best midfielder."

Can he still compete at the highest level beyond this season?

"Of course he can, we've seen that with Barca and with Spain," she continued. "Valverde has said he counts on him 100 percent. [January signing Philippe] Coutinho can play in the Champions League next season and he has to have more importance.

"He's a great player, too, but he doesn't make the team tick like Iniesta. So if he stays, he would very much be a key player in Valverde's side."

Iniesta, though, has doubts. The midfielder's always maintained that he will walk away before he being dubbed a hindrance. He will not be for the sake of being. And he perhaps feels that frequent knocks have become a problem. Despite not having a serious injury this season, he's been sidelined on five separate occasions and missed a total of nine games, disrupting his rhythm.

"If I stay, it's to be at 200 percent, like I always have been," he said last week. "If I don't [stay], it's because I'm unable to offer 200 percent, which is what the club deserve from me. It's the only doubt I have."

Benaiges believes there could be another factor. Victor Valdes once spoke about "one year at Barca being the same as two years at any other club," so imagine how Iniesta might feel after more than two decades in Blaugrana.

An easier life? A nice pay packet? Less pressure? You can see the temptation. What else does he have left to prove?

"You have to understand he's been Barcelona since he joined La Masia as a 12-year-old," Benaiges said. "He wants to know something else, like Valdes and [Pep] Guardiola did. It's not that he wants to leave Barca, per se, but maybe the moment has arrived when he doesn't see himself having such an important role. Going to China allows him to extend his career a little. And it's not like Qatar, where there's no one in the stadiums.

"I think it would an intelligent move. Getting to know a new league would be a motivation for him. The financial side of things is important, but I think it's a decision based more on a change of lifestyle. A change of scenery is attractive for Andres, getting to know a new culture."

Iniesta must let Barca know before May what his plans are. Those are the terms of his lifetime contract, apparently, which may end up not even reaching its first birthday. Every year, before the end of April, he must communicate to the club whether he will stick or twist. More of a gesture on the club's part than a contract, then, for a legendary player.

"Harry Potter," was one of the names former coach Luis Enrique gave him. On another occasion, he described him as "world heritage." Current boss Valverde says he's "unique, irreplaceable," yet he may well need to do just that this summer.

All will be revealed within a month. There will be no Benaiges involved this time and there will be no buttering up. This time, it's just Iniesta, at home with his wife and kids, who has to decide what to do. Few have doubts that he still has plenty to offer at the top level beyond this season, but the person who seems to have the most doubts right now is the one that matters.

It is, after all, a very personal decision.