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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Santi Cazorla's Villarreal renaissance could be bad news for Rangers

The Spaniard is enjoying playing again in La Liga after his injury problems at Arsenal

Santi Cazorla has made an immediate impact for Villarreal this season. EPA
Santi Cazorla has made an immediate impact for Villarreal this season. EPA

There’s not a lot of Santi Cazorla, at a mere 1,68m tall, and, with a posture that, ball at his feet, tends to be slightly hunched, he can look even smaller.

There is a lot less of his Achilles tendon than there used to be, too. His surgeons reckon that his long painful series of infections and operations consumed about 10cm of it.

That Cazorla, whose Villarreal hope to secure progress to the knockout phase of the Europa League in Scotland at Rangers on Thursday night, managed to come back from all that to play top-level football is regarded as a medical miracle.

It is also rather magical because of the type of footballer Cazorla is, a joy to watch, with his deft balance, almost perfect two-footedness and tirelessly imaginative creativity.

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All these were gifts that, two years ago, seemed forever consigned to video highlights clips, to nostalgia archives. In October 2016, playing for Arsenal in an Uefa Champions League group match at Ludgorets Cazorla, then 31, reached a point where the pain in his right leg left him close to tears.

The injury was cumulative, going back to fracture in his ankle back in 2013, and then a knee ligament tear that had not properly cured.

As it turned out, Cazorla never kicked another ball for Arsenal, and although the London club, who Cazorla joined in 2012, extended his contract with them until last June, it became apparent long before then they doubted he would ever play again.

So did many medical professionals who examined Cazorla’s wounds, and assessed the extent of not just of the battered bones and tissue damage but what aggressive bacteria had done.

His luck was that in his native Spain he found a doctor prepared to resourcefully clean out and patch up, using grafts from elsewhere on his body, a leg that was once a magic wand.

There would be 10 operations in all, many moments of despair and heartbreak, and only this summer did the former Spain international persuade others he might recover the mobility that had made him, in his early 20s, the creative hub of an upwardly mobile Villarreal, then of Malaga, later of Arsenal, and, on many grand stages, of Spain.

He has 77 caps, earned in a period when Spain also had Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva doing his sort of midfield work. He won gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 European championships with the national team, and would have gone to the victorious World Cup in 2010 had injury not deprived him of a place in that squad.

Cazorla had a few knockbacks like that through his peak years, helping to build the sort of stoic determination he showed over the last 24 months.

He has always been an engagingly positive sort as well, with his impish grin, and an openness unusual in his profession. He is hugely popular for that, with supporters as well as teammates.

He is especially cherished at Villarreal, where he began his professional career and where they gave him a chance, in the summer, to see how his rebuilt limb would stand up to twists and turns on the practice pitch.

Once Cazorla and the club, coached by his former Villarreal teammate, Javi Calleja, had seen signs of the miracle realised, they offered him a proper homecoming. They made quite a ceremony of it, too, an unveiling at which a magician appeared at the club’s homely stadium and the diminutive Cazorla emerged from something looking like a giant test tube.

The message: This most inventive of footballers was back, reinvented with patience and applied medical science.

After 636 days without a game, he made his second Villarreal debut in August. He has since contributed significantly to putting them at the top of a tight Group G in the Europa League - just two points separate all four clubs, with Rangers sitting second - and his stamina is mounting, as is his swagger.

Last weekend, he set up Villarreal’s win over Real Betis with two assists, one a backheel. “You have to take your hat off to him,” said coach Calleja of him.

A win tonight would take the Cazorla comeback across another threshold, put Villarreal into the knockouts. There, there’s a chance of meeting Arsenal. He would appreciate that.

Cazorla always regretted, through the long hard months after that last game in their colours, he never really had the chance to say a proper goodbye.