Carlos Villanueva goes into this season with a Dh18 million price tag and a point to prove. At the start of the last campaign the attacking midfielder arrived in the English Premier League with some fanfare, scored on his debut and was hailed by both the managers he played under as a class act. But after a good start, things never took off for the Chilean and he starts this season in the UAE. If Villanueva is under pressure to live up to his potential then the team he has joined, Al Shabab, are equally in the spotlight.
They were 27 points off first place in last season's Pro League, finishing fifth. But his international teammate Jorge Valdivia's success at Al Ain, which guaranteed his place in the Chilean national squad, encouraged Villanueva to accept the four-year offer for his services. "It was not an easy decision to make as I was playing in the best league in the world", he said. "It has been a big change for me, but I don't like to think about the past, only the present. Now I am here in Shabab I will give my best.
"The team has been shaping up well. Now I just want to football to start so that I can repay my teammates and the fans for all the support they have given me." The transition has not been easy, especially with the weather in this part of the world, but Villanueva is coming to terms with the climate. "The UAE is a great place to live and I can also find some Chilean people here in Dubai," he says.
"I am thinking about getting my family here, but I don't know. For the moment, I am just thinking about football. I know we have some very good players coming here. Every team has good players, so the competition is going to be really strong. It is going to be a really tough league and a hard season. We want to be fighting for every championship. This is the principal target." Internet clips of Villaneuva's goals saw posts on football websites acclaiming his as a breakthrough South American talent.
The 23-year-old was expected to be a Premier League star after being signed on loan by Paul Ince, the then Blackburn manager, from Chilean club Audax Italiano. He showed his eye for goal when scoring on his Rovers debut in the Carling Cup against Grimsby Town. But he struggled against better opposition in the league and, after Ince's departure following a string of poor results, it looked as through Villanueva may never get another chance.
Sam Allardyce, the new Rovers manager, said on his arrival: "There is no one at this club that has more ability than Carlos". But he failed to find a place for Villanueva and as Rovers slipped into the relegation battle the South American was forgotten. With just 13 appearances under his belt, Villanueva decided he had to move to a club where he would be assured of a starting spot. With the 2010 World Cup on the horizon he could not afford to warm the benches and he hopes a free scoring season in the UAE will lead to international recognition.