GNIEWINO: Spain's relatively nervy Euro 2012 campaign so far has been put down by some to what they see as the below-par performances of its midfield general Xavi Hernandez.
Aside from a good first 45 minutes against Italy - when several others failed to sparkle - the 32-year-old creative linchpin has been quiet to the point of being anonymous in what is his seventh major finals including the 2000 Olympics.
Indeed alarm bells are starting to ring that perhaps even the master of the tiki-taka - known fondly as the 'Puppet Master' - is beginning to feel the wear and tear of so many campaigns as he has been outshone by Barcelona partner in crime Andres Iniesta. It hasn't helped his case that another veteran, Italian World Cup-winning playmaker Andrea Pirlo, has made light of his age to perhaps be the most impressive midfield performer so far.
The Spanish have done well enough without him being at his best, winning two and drawing with Italy thus far but they will be hoping that in Sunday's quarter-final in Donetsk with France he will be back to his best.
Xavi, a three-time Ballon D'Or bronze medalist, will win his 113th cap on Saturday since making his debut in 2000 and it is hard to imagine that coach Vicente del Bosque has shifted much from his assessment of him made prior to his winning his 100th last year.
“He is a great kid who is totally dedicated to the national team,” Del Bosque said.
“Xavi is the benchmark for what the squad is about, personally and professionally.
“It is impossible to know who is the best in the history of Spanish football, but Xavi is one of the best, that is a no-brainer.”
The normally astute Xavi had perhaps set the stage for his low key performances prior to the tournament with a maladroit comment about the relationship between the Barcelona players and those of Real Madrid - always a delicate subject.
“We congratulated Real Madrid for winning the title when they have patently failed to do so over the past few years,” he said bitterly.
Many would have preferred he had taken his frustration out on the pitch.
But if anything can get him motivated to return to his role as conductor of the orchestra it will be to beat France in a major finals knockout round and avenge the Spanish defeat in the 2006 World Cup second round, a match he played in.
He has waited six years for such an opportunity but to him it would not seem a long time as if there is one thing that sums up Xavi it is his infinite patience as he waits and waits to find the pinpoint pass to deliver the fatal blow.
“That's what I do: look for spaces. All day. I'm always looking.”
Spain are now looking to him to do just that and allay fears that their puppet master has lost his ability to pull the strings.