x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Nikica Jelavic proving a bargain buy for thrifty Everton

The Croatian forward has made an immediate impact with the Goodison Park club since his January transfer from Rangers.

Nikica Jelavic scored Everton’s only goal in the FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool.
Nikica Jelavic scored Everton’s only goal in the FA Cup semi-final loss to Liverpool.

The FA Cup semi-final was a Merseyside derby of two strikers with certain similarities and considerable differences.

Both bought on deadline day in January and both goalscorers on Saturday, the resemblances between Andy Carroll and Nikica Jelavic may end there.

Carroll, recruited by Liverpool for £35 million in 2011, has been maligned and slow to make an impact before his Wembley winner.

But Jelavic, a bargain at £5.5m when Everton signed him less than three months ago, has had an immediate effect. His opener on Saturday was his fifth goal in five games and his sixth since leaving Glasgow Rangers.

It is a return that has brought the Croatian plenty of praise from David Moyes. "He looks hungry, he looks like a centre-forward, and we have missed that," the Everton manager said. "The boys like him. They like the way he plays, they like his style."

His national coach has been more forthright. "When I read about £20m transfers, getting him for £5.5m looks like a bargain," said Slaven Bilic, Croatia manager and former Everton defender. "It's great for Everton."

And yet it is strange to think such an accomplished finisher could have been playing in the Championship. Leicester City tried to sign Jelavic last summer while West Ham United were interested in January.

If the forward had passed under the radar of wealthier top-flight clubs (although Jelavic said his agent had been in contact with Manchester United), perhaps it is because he took the roundabout route to Goodison Park. He has been at clubs in six different countries.

The 26 year old was born in Yugoslavia, as it then was, and began on the books of GOSK Gabela, a Bosnian club, before crossing the border to Croatia, first to NK Neretva and then Hajduk Split, for whom he made his debut at 17.

He left his homeland to join the Belgian club Zulte Waregem for a single season before a two-year stay at Rapid Vienna, where he first attracted the attention of Moyes.

It was during a 29-goal campaign in 2009/10 that Bilic, too, took notice. He gave Jelavic his international debut against Qatar, the substitute scoring in the final few minutes.

When "the flying fortress", as he is nicknamed in Croatia, left Austria, it was controversially.

Rudolf Edlinger, the Rapid president, suspended the striker for refusing to face Aston Villa, whom he had knocked out of the Uefa Cup 12 months earlier, in a Europa League qualifier. A £4 million move to Rangers was swiftly concluded and he maintained his prolific form in Scotland, scoring 36 goals in 55 games.

But Rangers' financial problems made Jelavic's exit increasingly inevitable. The money they banked for him was not enough to prevent the Glaswegian giants from entering administration.

Jelavic was introduced to the Goodison Park crowd at half time in the 1-0 win against Manchester City, receiving a rapturous reception. "That was a great experience," he said.

Since then, the goals have flowed. While Jelavic was a boyhood admirer of David Trezeguet, Moyes has compared him to another striker who starred in the 1998 World Cup, the top scorer and his fellow Croatian Davor Suker.

"He does remind me," the Scot said. "He sees getting goals as part of his job, his role in the team, but he has helped link us up as well. He is a presence as a centre forward so he has been good for us."

Thus far, it has been a mutual admiration society.

"When a manager like that wants you in his team, it is a real honour," Jelavic said.

His goal against Liverpool made him Everton's top scorer for the season and was taken with characteristic calm. Nerveless finishing is an asset others admire.

"He's got ice running through his veins and nothing bothers him," Phil Neville, the captain, said.

Bilic concurred. "He's such a cool finisher," he said. "They needed a guy who is not only a finisher but is also great in other areas and they have found a natural goalscorer who is great in the build-up."

Despite Jelavic's rancorous exit from Rapid Vienna, Bilic describes him as "a model professional and so down to earth".

Yet Jelavic, who describes the Croatian playmaker Luka Modric as the best footballer he has lined up alongside, is not yet a regular starter for his country.

Ivica Olic is ahead of him in the queue for places at Euro 2012, where they face Republic of Ireland, Italy and Spain.

"I hope playing in the Premier League will get me into his [Bilic's] Croatia team," Jelavic said.

Carry on at this rate and it may be hard to omit him.

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