Santi Cazorla is the man they thought would never play competitive football again. On Friday night he’s back in the Spain team and it’s not for some fancy delayed testimonial for services to La Roja – he’s there because he might just be the solution for the team going into next season’s Euros.
When Cazorla did a series of interviews at the start of the season – including one with Sportsmail – the questions focussed mainly on whether he feared getting kicked and whether he thought he would last the season.
At the time he had still not had his short term future confirmed by Villarreal, the club that took him from Arsenal at the end of last season.
Many people believed Santi Cazorla (centre) would never play again, for club or country
The veteran midfielder returned to his former club Villarreal and has recaptured his old magic
A couple of decent showings in pre-season friendlies persuaded them to give him a two year deal but the hard work was only just beginning.
He had to persuade coach Javi Calleja that he wasn’t returning just to be an impact sub or someone who could play for an hour when the sun was shining – that he was someone the team should be built around.
Things did not start well as Calleja did not appear to know what to do with Cazorla and Villarreal slid into a relegation battle. When the manager was sacked by the owner’s son and replaced by Luis Garcia Plaza the writing looked to be very much on the wall.
Such were the extent of his repeat injuries, Cazorla had to have a skin graft from his arm
Now Cazorla is smiling again and back in the Spain international squad at the age of 34
The new coach wanted Villarreal to be quicker, stronger and more powerful. He wanted an ordered 4-4-2 and there seemed to be even less room for Cazorla.
In a bizarre twist to Villarreal’s strange season – they reached a Europa League semi-final but only secured safety with three weeks of the season to spare – they sacked Garcia Plaza after just 50 days.
It wasn’t that he had done badly it was more a case of the club’s owner Fernando Roig pulling rank once more on his son and telling him: I’m still in charge. Not only did he remove Garcia Plaza but he reinstated Calleja.
Having had a month to watch the team from a distance Calleja seemed to have changed some of his ideas. When he returned it seemed Cazorla was to be more important than ever. Vicente Iborra had been bought from Leicester and would give Santi support in midfield.
Those two seemed on the same wavelength from the start and Iborra’s physical presence helped free up space and time for Cazorla to play.
There were still tears when he missed a penalty in one relegation six-pointer but the famous smile returned to his face. He had expressed fears to pals earlier in the season that he genuinely believed the team could be relegated. But now what could have been a nightmare return ending in the second tier looked set to finish in style.
Upon his return to La Liga the skillful star managed to stay fit and have a real impact
Cazorla became a club legend at Arsenal but his career was plagued by serious injuries
Villarreal found their wings just in time and Cazorla’s midfield magic was a major reason for the turnaround. He did not end up relegated. In fact he finished up in many people’s team of the season and then finally in the Spain team.
Tonight’s away fixture against Faroe Islands might not be the most glamous of returns after four years out but he will not care. And he could also feature on Monday against Sweden in the Bernabeu.
‘There were moments when I thought I would throw in the towel,’ he said in the close season of his injury hell that kept him out for 668 days.
‘But the next day I always got back out there training hard with the hope that I could play again.’
He still carries the scars – some of the most famous scars in football with part of an arm tattoo now covering his ankle because of a skin graft. But he has another chance to star for Spain with next season’s Euros a genuine possibility if he reproduces club form for country over the next two games.