x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

No substitute for hard work

Marcotti's Man: For years Walter Pandiani has had to settle for life on the bench, but his impact as a "super sub" from it cannot be under-estimated.

Walter Pandiani, right, is finally finding himself a regular starting berth in his career at Osasuna.
Walter Pandiani, right, is finally finding himself a regular starting berth in his career at Osasuna.

For years Walter Pandiani has had to settle for life on the bench, but his impact from it cannot be underestimated It is something of an unwanted title in football circles, but, in terms of the role's importance, every team would love to have their very own "super-sub". David Fairclough, the former Liverpool striker, was arguably one of the greatest and willing exponents of the role, often coming on in games to make the telling impact to help his side to dominate in England and Europe.

Walter Pandiani is turning into another. He is a player with the ability to quickly adapt to the pace of the game and have a telling impact in his limited time on the field. Most of these appearances tend to be done through gritted teeth, determined to prove the manager wrong for omitting him from the starting line-up in the first place. Penarol and Nacional, the two biggest clubs in Uruguay, are known for scouring the country for gifted youngsters. Pandiani was summarily overlooked as a youngster by both, despite being right on their doorstep. Instead, he made his name with lower division sides like Progreso and Basanez, before finally getting his shot at Penarol at the age of 22.

After a disappointing first campaign, which saw him used mostly as a substitute, he came into his own in 1999, notching 17 goals and helping Penarol to the title. Deportivo La Coruna, the Spanish side, signed him up, but, even then, they were not fully convinced by their recruit. They left him in Uruguay for another six months. "He's too raw, he needs to mature," Javier Irureta, the Depor coach, said at the time, as if he was talking about a piece of fruit.

When he finally landed in Galicia in the summer of 2000, the locals were distinctly underwhelmed, particularly since another top striker had arrived at the same time: Diego Tristan. The latter was Spanish, had scored 18 goals for Real Mallorca the previous season and was on the verge of a call-up to the national side. Unsurprisingly, with just one spot available in Irureta's 4-2-3-1 formation, Pandiani was dispatched to the bench with Tristan deployed as the lone striker.

But that move actually worked out to Pandiani's advantage as he began to unveil his super-sub persona. The plan was simple. Start with the elegant Tristan and the unpredictable genius of Juan Carlos Valeron behind him. Then, throw in the physical and robust Pandiani to finish opponents off. By the end of the season he had tallied eight goals as a substitute in all competitions, three of them coming with a memorable hat-trick against Paris St Germain in the Uefa Champions League.

That is when he gained his nickname "El Rifle", a moniker fit for a marksman who had a habit of hitting the target when his side really needed it. The following season he made just three starts in the league, but by that point he was growing tired of the super-sub role. And so, in the summer of 2002, he asked - and obtained - a chance to prove his worth elsewhere. He was loaned to Mallorca where he became a regular starter and returned the faith shown in him with 19 goals, one of them in the final of the Copa del Rey, which his side won, 3-0. Buoyed by his success, he returned to Depor, where he went on to score 20 goals and play a crucial part in the side's march to the Champions League semi-finals. That was the good news.

The bad news was that, despite his goals tally, he was again in and out of the side. Somehow, his impact from the bench was not enough for a starting berth. He finally became a full-fledged regular in 2004/05. By that point, however, the club were struggling financially and he was loaned to Birmingham City, where he immediately impressed, scoring on his debut. Manager Steve Bruce made the move permanent that summer for £3 million (Dh17.4m), but he only stayed another six months at St Andrew's.

Despite his bright start, he did not settle in England, so when Espanyol came calling in January 2006, he returned to Spain. Once again, he was in and out of the side, though he did score the last-minute winner against Deportivo in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey. In 2006-07 he cemented his super-sub role. He scored 18 goals in all competitions, yet started just seven games in La Liga. Eleven of those goals came in the Uefa Cup, as Espanyol advanced all the way to the final against Seville.

Typically, despite being the competition's top goalscorer - and despite a hat-trick at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid four days before the final - he found himself on the bench. Espanyol ended up losing on penalties, Pandiani was heartbroken. And so, in the summer, he moved again. This time to Osasuna. They were willing to believe in him, but fate is cruel. Just as he was settling in, a string of injuries curtailed his progress, limiting him to just 20 appearances. He only made his return in October of 2008, but, finally things began to look up. He finished with 13 goals in 27 appearances and won the hearts of the fans.

This season he has seven goals in 16 league starts. Yet perhaps the statistic that matters most to him is zero. That is the number of appearances he made as a super-sub this year. @Email:sports@thenational.ae