The finish from Gerard Moreno was exceptional, lasered into the corner of the Valencia net on the full volley from 18 yards out, but Santi Cazorla’s preceding touch was something else. Few others would have even thought it possible to watch a ball fall out of the sky before cushioning a volley-pass into a teammate, let alone attempt it. There aren’t many others like Cazorla, though.
It was a moment that will make La Liga’s end-of-season highlight reel. A moment that showcased the Villarreal playmaker at his very best. This sort of brilliance has been produced by Cazorla more than once this season, with the 35-year-old enjoying a remarkable career renaissance at the club where it all started for him.
Cazorla’s impressive form, which has seen him score eight and assist eight in La Liga this season, is made all the more remarkable when factoring in where the playmaker was as recently as summer 2018. This is a player whose career at any level of the game looked to be over. Retirement beckoned.
Indeed, few in the sport have gone so low only to go high again. After suffering an ankle injury in late 2016, Cazorla was faced with a medical nightmare that saw him undergo eight operations. He contracted gangrene which consumed part of the tendon, with doctors telling the player he would be lucky to walk again, never mind play.
When Cazorla left Arsenal at the end of his contract two summers ago, most assumed it would be to retire. A return to Villarreal, however, healed Cazorla both physically and spiritually. Last season saw him play 35 times in La Liga, an achievement in itself. Cazorla has played 29 times so far this season.
But it’s not just that Cazorla is playing again. It’s the level at which he is playing. He is the most influential player for a team once again challenging for a Europa League place this season. The majority of Villarreal’s attacking play flows through the 35-year-old. After everything, Cazorla continues to sparkle.
Last summer even saw Cazorla recalled to the Spanish national team for the first time in four years. While the veteran might not be a long-term option for La Roja, he is one of the best midfielders the country currently has. If Spain are simply picking a group of the best players available, Cazorla has to be included.
There have been suggestions that Cazorla will join Mikel Arteta’s coaching staff at Arsenal once he finally hangs up his boots. One report claimed the 35-year-old had been offered a role to take up this summer, with Arteta keen to surround himself with people he knows and trusts. Cazorla, of course, was also something of a fan favourite in North London. His return as a coach would be a popular one.
But while this might hold some appeal at some point, Cazorla surely plans on playing for at least one more season. If Villarreal can keep their current form up, they might even be in the Champions League after the summer, with others around them faltering since the restart in Spain after the coronavirus shutdown.
If Villarreal are to snatch a top four place, Cazorla will have played a key role. He isn’t just a difference maker in the final third of the pitch, surpassing Juan Roman Riquelme as Villarreal’s fifth top scorer ever, but the Yellow Submarine’s pace-setter. Cazorla is the one who dictates the tempo and direction of his team as a whole. Without him, Villarreal aren’t the same side.
Cazorla surely expected his return to La Liga to be something of a farewell tour. The 35-year-old isn’t just a popular figure with his own fans, but with fans of rival clubs around Spain. Perhaps, at this moment in time, only Joaquin commands a greater level of respect across the league. A farewell tour would have see Cazorla warmly received at every ground his visited.
The past two seasons have been nothing of the sort, though. The Estadio de la Ceramica might be the perfect place for Cazorla to call it a day when that day eventually comes, but there’s no reason for him to retire. Not just yet, anyway. Rather than being a shadow of his former self, as many expected of Cazorla when he returned to Villarreal, he is showcasing every quality that made him so eye-catching and devastating in his prime.
Villarreal currently sit fifth in La Liga, three points off Sevilla for a Champions League spot. They're upcoming run of fixtures won't be easy, however, with matches against four of the top seven clubs, including league leaders Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Sun, July 5 at 4:00 PM ET – Villarreal vs Barcelona
Wed, July 8 at 1:30 PM ET – Getafe vs Villarreal
Mon, July 13 at 1:30 PM ET – Villarreal vs Real Sociedad
Wed, July 15 at TBD – Real Madrid vs Villarreal
Sun, July 19 at TBD – Villarreal vs Eibar