Barcelona Basking In The Return of Samuel Eto’o

Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers” but FC Barcelona call hope Samuel Eto’o, the 26-year old ever volatile but forever reliable 5′ 11″ striker who has been with club for over three years now. This is the man who has scored 50 goals in his first two seasons at Camp Nou, the man who has created as many and even more, the man who has been La Liga’s most clinical finisher and top marksman for three years. Eto’o was the man who from the inside cost Barcelona the Spanish league title last season; not because he had called his club manager a bad man, not because he had had a tiff with team mate Ronaldinho but because he had missed more than one-third of the season with a right knee injury and Barca missed him and missed him desperately.

Barcelona missed him too since August this season when one of the most frightening and versatile strikers in European football was forced to opt for the sidelines due to the aggravation of that meniscus injury; Barca missed him in those 14 matches that he didn’t feature in until mid-December and missed him in their away matches too. Barcelona have been starved of goals and rhythm in their away matches in the final third of the pitch, when all they needed to round off the intricate passing of Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Lionel Messi was a Samuel Eto’o.

But Samuel Eto’o is back now alright and back banging in goals right, left and centre. True, the Cameroonian international has changed somewhat since the last time he was observed on the football pitch but that change has been all physical, cervical to be precise. Eto’o is now sporting a mesh of closely cropped hair on his skull (now when was the last time that he did that?) and that certainly makes him appear younger. But that’s that.

For anyone who had felt that Eto’o might be in desperate need of a run of matches to shape himself into the right form must have suffered a rudely pleasant shock. The 3 times African Player of the Year came on as a substitute against Deportivo la Coruna on December 10 and in his very next match, which was an academic one against VFB Stuttgart in the UEFA Champions League in which even poor, old Ronaldinho got a start, Eto’o hit the back of the net. Barca manager Frank Rijkaard decided to play him from the start against a rapidly disintegrating Valencia side and he rewarded the Dutchman for his faith with two goals, both creations of art in themselves.

While the first one was all about weaving some fantasy footwork in an area of about 1 square meter and hoodwinking a couple of stranded and out-of-sorts Valencia defenders, the second was an instance of neat one-touch football rounded off with a clinically exquisite shot that Valencia custodian Santiago Canizares didn’t even have a clue about. Eto’o was pulled out of the pitch at the Mestalla after 67 minutes but there was no reason to question Rijkaard’s decision.

For on Sunday evening, El Clasico not so much knocks as bangs on the door. This is Spain’s and possibly the entire football world’s biggest club fixture. Spain’s Big Two, Real Madrid and Barcelona, lock horns at Camp Nou and boy, isn’t Samuel Eto’o looking forward to sticking it in once more to his old club! Eto’o had been a youth team player for Real from initially and was technically a Real Madrid player till 2000 but most of those years were spent either on loan to other clubs or warming the bench. At Real Madrid, Eto’o was considered a liability, an item without whom the Los Merengues could well do without.

So Eto’o was sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 2000 after he spent the previous season with the Islanders on loan. Eto’o was, and still is, Mallorca’s biggest signing in history for $6.3 million. Eto’o’s passion, love and commitment to the club saw him adored and loved by the Son Moix faithful and when Catalan giants came calling in the summer of 2004, it was not easy for either player or club to pull away from each other.

At Camp Nou, Samuel Eto’o has been a revelation to such a degree while everyone rants about Barcelona can cope without Ronaldinho, no one subscribes to the notion that Eto’o is dispensable. In his first season, Eto’o hammered in 24 goals in La Liga and 4 in 7 matches in the UEFA Champions League. The very next season in 2005-2006, Eto’o banged an incredible 26 goals in the league, clinched the Pichichi on the last day of the season and netted the ball 6 times in the Champions League, including one against Arsenal in the final.

Many underline Eto’o’s absence through injury as the central reason for Barcelnoa losing out on the Spanish championship to archrivals Real Madrid last season. He missed over one-third of the season with a meniscus problem in his right knee and his comeback wasn’t that confident, although at the end of the campaign, Eto’o did mange to register 11 goals in 19 league appearances. This season too Eto’o has been rocked by injury and Frank Rijkaard’s men have struggled at times without the Cameroonian even with Thierry Henry filling in the large yawning shoes of Eto’o.

But now Eto’o is back and his return has muscled as much fear into the Madridistas’ hearts as hope into Barca fans’ souls. The Real wouldn’t of course confess that they would fear Eto’o when Real confront Barca at Camp Nou this Sunday in the season’s first El Clasico —hatred and rebuff would be more appropriate terms—but they should know that without Lionel the Messiah Messi and not-so-well-functioning Ronaldinho, Barca’s main source of threat will be Eto’o.

Eto’o is not an old fashioned centre forward who would lurk on the back of the opposition central defenders, crawl himself inside the penalty box like a fox in the box and poach a goal or two. Instead, what makes Eto’o frightening and so tough to mark is his knack and creativity to make deadly straight runs at the opposition backline. Eto’o can score as well as construct moves that result in goals, a striker who can finish off a move as well as make cunning assists and run all over the park.

These are the elements in Eto’o’s game that Real Madrid manager Bernd Schuster must well be aware of and would certainly be asking his defenders to close down on Eto’o and restrict him both space and time on the ball. Once Eto’o is safely buttonholed (which is not quite an easy task to accomplish, it must be admitted) Real’s aim to blunt the Barca attacking edge would become slightly easier. Whether Real’s defense, which as often looked shaky and somewhat incoherent at times this season, can follow Schuster’s instructions or not is another story altogether.

Eto’o has long openly expresed his disgust and resentment at the treatment he got by Real Madrid early in his career. When Barca won the Spanish championship in 2005 ending a 5-year trophy drought, Eto’o screamed: Madrid, you arsehole, salute the champions. Real fans paid him back in his own coin last season La Liga trophy returned to the Bernabeu after an agonising wait of 3 heavily limping years: “Eto’o, you arsehole, salute the champions.” So brace yourself for some ridiculously bitter spit-spats between Samuel Eto’o and the Real fans on Sunday evening.

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