In a Spanish season that was supposed to be shaken up by Eden Hazard, the standout individual in Spain so far is a man medical experts thought would never play again.
If Santi Cazorla’s 2018/19 was about proving he could still compete after recovering from a career-threatening injury, the playmaker’s 2019/20 is already proving that he can still be one of the best at the absolute highest level.
With four league goals the little magician sits joint-second in the Pichichi (top scorer) table among the company of Luis Suárez and Maxi Gómez, and with three assists he is the joint-highest provider for other team-mates in LaLiga.
Against that context, it was no longer surprising when Spanish national team coach Roberto Moreno included the 34-year-old in his latest Spain squad.
If anything Cazorla is the best performing Spanish midfielder of all at present, and with some of the stalwarts in the middle of the pitch in shaky form, La Roja are likely to need his talents to take a maximum return from a decisive away double-header against Norway and Sweden.
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Cazorla’s comeback isn’t just a sentimental affair though, he means business.
There was already evidence at the end of last season, when he produced consistent performances weekend after weekend to help Villarreal comfortably avoid the drop, but because of the stage and the opponent, his man of the match showing away at Barcelona on September 24th felt like a watershed moment.
The Yellow Submarine couldn’t take points in the end but it wasn’t for lack of trying from their number eight.
His goal – a left-footed rocket from outside the area after drifting into the hole – was vintage Cazorla.
His passing, typically flawless, never missing a beat. The reward was an ovation from the Camp Nou, a crowd not known for being sentimental about opponents.
The Cazorla of today is a player Villarreal couldn’t afford to sign if a fee was involved, a remarkable situation considering how things looked just over a year ago.
When he returned to the Valencian region, the club initially only invited him to take part in training while continuing a long and seemingly unlikely rehabilitation. Cazorla was eventually offered a contract with a humble salary, plus the addition of a small bonus for every match played (he would ultimately play 46 times).
It was a gesture of faith during a dark moment that the playmaker paid back this summer: offers to wind down and have a big pay day outside of Spain, including joining up with Xavi Hernández in Qatar, were rejected.
Loyal but also convinced there’s still plenty of gas in the tank to compete against the toughest opponents, he instead signed a new deal with Villarreal. Then went on to dominate, just like in the glory years.
Over in the Spanish capital, Real Madrid fans could be forgiven for wondering when the guy they spent €100million on will start to dominate games like Villarreal’s comeback hero.
Last weekend Eden Hazard finally got his first official goal for Los Blancos, and that will buy him more vital time, but his overall performance was still not that expected of a marquee signing for Spain’s most successful club.
So far Madrid supporters have generally been admirably patient with the newcomer, understanding that injury problems disrupted the Belgian’s start to the season. But sooner rather than later they will want to see him take matches by the scruff of the neck and show the class that was paid for.
Scoring against Granada was of course helpful, but Hazard’s rare quality to make the difference against trophy rivals was the basis for his signing. On those occasions to date he has drawn blank, and El Clásico on October 26th looms nearer.
Hazard could do worse than to look to Cazorla’s persistence for inspiration.
At one point during two years out of action, a doctor told the former Arsenal man that he should forget about professional football and be content if he could even manage to play in his garden again. “That was a phrase that I erased as soon as I heard it,” he recalled, defiantly.
That sense of persistence not only brought Cazorla back to LaLiga, where he is excelling once more, it also brought him back to the Spain set-up, four years later.
“The staff told me I’m here based on sporting merits,” the Villarreal talisman reflected. “I think I’m here because the level I’m producing this year is the right level to compete for the national team”. Would anyone disagree?