x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Compact Cazorla proof why small is beautiful

The Arsenal midfielder has enjoyed big individual success despite being short in stature. But what eludes the Spaniard is silverware, he tells Ian Hawkey, ahead of today's Uefa Champions League last-16 draw.

Santi Cazorla, centre, has scored seven goals in the English Premier League so far this season. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo
Santi Cazorla, centre, has scored seven goals in the English Premier League so far this season. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo

On the way to his first hat-trick in English football, Santi Cazorla invited his Arsenal teammates to acknowledge the most remarkable aspect of his outstanding performance.

Having met a left-wing cross against Reading on Monday night, to put Arsenal 2-0 up, he pointed to his forehead, raised his eyebrows and broke into a broad grin, as if to say, "Can you believe it?" He repeated the gesture again, as other colleagues came to embrace the Spaniard.

Cazorla's delight was that he had scored with his head. He does not win many headers. He stands 1.65 metres, so he never will. Even in the Spain squad who hold all the major prizes available in international football, he is at the diminutive extreme of the collection of midfielders who so stunningly present the case that football need not be a sport where muscle and height dominate.

Barcelona's Andres Iniesta and Xavi, and Manchester City's David Silva, each of them well under 1.75m, can all gently jibe Cazorla for his stature.

A habitually cheerful man, Cazorla does not mind being self-deprecating about it. But as he said recently, there were times, when he was growing up in Asturias, in northern Spain, when for all his skills on the ball, his deft close control, the precision of his passing and his one step ahead of the rest vision of the game, his height used to put some scouts and coaches in doubt over his potential future as a professional.

"There was a period in football when everything was more physical," he said, "and it was a problem not just for me but for smaller players in general. There were lots of Spanish teams who didn't want to sign me because of my size when I was 15 or 16 years old.

"But football has changed now. It's not so focussed on height but on technique."

Cazorla's technique has wowed the English Premier League from the first moments of his debut with Arsenal, who signed him for what seems a bargain ?15 million (Dh73.1m) from Malaga in the summer.

His three goals against Reading took his tally to seven in the league; of the trio of attacking internationals recruited by Arsenal in the summer, Cazorla, France's Olivier Giroud and Germany's Lukas Podolski, the Spaniard has been the most successful so far.

Cazorla acknowledges, however, that for all the approval he has gained from Arsenal supporters, there is frustration at the irregular form that has left them sitting outside the Premier League's top four and probably too distant, at 15 points behind Manchester United, to maintain hopes of a first league title since 2004.

"We are inconsistent and to challenge for the Premier League you can't afford to let games slip away," he said. "When we played Fulham last month we were 2-0 up and then ended up drawing. Against Aston Villa we drew when we really had the feeling we should win. Those are points we will not get back, and when you see United and Manchester City winning on those days, it is a problem."

The diagnosis? Hard to identify.

"We're a good team, playing at a good level with good players, but there are moments in some games where we haven't known how to take control," he said.

Cazorla signed for Arsenal to win major trophies, seizing, as he puts it "a chance I could not pass by to join a great, historic club".

For a holder of 50 caps for the most serially successful national team in modern football, his club career is starkly undecorated. Villarreal, Recreativo de Huelva and Malaga, the three clubs he represented in Spain's top flight, all benefited from, and indeed would shape the way they played around Cazorla's inventiveness, but not to the extent of challenging Barcelona or Real Madrid at the summit of the Spanish domestic game.

With Villarreal, relegated the season after Cazorla left for Malaga, he did enjoy some extended campaigns in the Champions League. With Arsenal, he hopes for a longer run in European club football's most elite tournament.

Tomorrow, anticipating the draw at Uefa headquarters for the last-16 stage of the competition, he will be anxious his new club avoid too many of his compatriots. Like Madrid and Valencia, Arsenal finished runners-up in their first-phase group - won by Schalke - which means they cannot meet those two Spanish clubs at the next stage. They could, though, be set against Barcelona, who knocked Arsenal out of the competition in 2010 and 2011, or Malaga, who are through to the knockouts in their debut Champions League campaign.

"For me," Cazorla said, "the best team in the world at the moment is Barca. As for the rest, Malaga are a good team and they have shown it in Europe. They finished above AC Milan in their group and on their day, they can beat any of the big clubs.

"You have to admire what the players at Malaga have been doing after the difficult time the squad had last year. There were delays in wage payments, and lots of uncertainty."

Those were factors that hastened Cazorla's own departure from there.

Did he feel he had left the best league in the Europe - as the make up of the 2012/13 Champions League last-16, with its four Primera Liga representatives, suggests - for a lesser one, an English Premier League which has seen Chelsea and City knocked out of the European Cup already?

He did not. He beams about the full stadiums, the vibrant crowds of English football and detects no sign of long-term decline in the fact that for the second season in succession there will be only two Premier League clubs in the Champions League knockouts.

"City have just not had much luck with the groups they have been drawn in. As for Chelsea, it was also difficult for them in their group. For me, Shakhtar Donetsk are an incredible side, and Juventus have a great squad. I don't think English clubs have a particular problem with Europe. You just have to look at the teams who have reached the last few finals - and Chelsea won the last one."

In doing so, Chelsea presented Juan Mata and Fernando Torres with Champions League gold medals to add to the World Cup and European Championship honours they had collected with Spain. Cazorla, who missed the 2010 World Cup with injury, but featured in Spain's triumphs at Euro 2008 and 2012, is tired of envying his national squad colleagues their illustrious club achievements.

He joined Arsenal to collect some of his own. The Champions League may yet be his quickest route to that.

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