As the ball comes hurtling towards Valencia’s penalty area, Santi Cazorla has slipped, unnoticed, into a pocket of space behind the defence. With a wonderful, feathered touch, he tames the unceremonious hoof upfield, teeing up Gerard Moreno for Villarreal’s second goal.
The quality of the assist is such that Moreno’s hip-high volley barely gets little more than a nod of vague appreciation as the goal is incessantly replayed and poured over in the weeks that followed.
This was Cazorla’s eighth assist of a staggering individual campaign for the 35-year-old, made all the more emphatic by his seniority and traumatic battle with injuries. Villarreal confirmed that Cazorla’s third spell with the Yellow Submarine would come to an end at the campaign’s conclusion, bringing down the curtain on a love affair spanning almost two decades.
Cazorla’s first two stints in that famous yellow kit had a standout season at Recreativo de Huelva sandwiched between. In the second game of the 2006/07, just a few months after being let go by Villarreal, Cazorla arrived at a ground he had, until recently, called home.
The 21-year-old playmaker swept in the only goal of the game ten minutes from time, crumpling to his knees and pressing his palms together as his new teammates swarmed. That season Cazorla was named Don Balón’s Spanish Player of the Year as newly-promoted Recreativo climbed to eighth – the highest-ever finish in the club’s history.
Cazorla became a fixture of Villarreal’s side following his return, often starting on the left with licence to roam in field. Villarreal split apart the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, coming second in his first season back.
With supposed interest from Real Madrid emphatically declined, Cazorla was eventually tempted away from El Madrigal by the man who had sold him to Recreativo, Manuel Pellegrini. A prolific year with the Chilean at Malaga earned the club Champions League qualification and Cazorla a move to the Premier League in 2012.
Arsène Wenger wonderfully conveyed the experience of seeing Cazorla strut his stuff after a particularly spirited display in the Spaniard’s debut campaign at Arsenal, cooing: “It is a pleasure to watch him. It’s a delight to see what he did on the pitch.”
Theo Walcott added another healthy dollop of praise when he declared that Cazorla ‘has come to the Premier League and taken it by storm’.
Despite joining the husk that Arsenal were left after the departure of both Robin van Persie and Alexandre Song, Cazorla hit double figures in league goals and assists for the first (and so far only) time in his career.
The following year, Cazorla was instrumental in the club’s 2014 FA Cup triumph. After falling 2-0 down in the final to Hull City inside ten minutes, Arsenal looked to have squandered their latest chance of ending a nine-year trophy drought. That is until Cazorla bent in a superb free-kick to calm jangling nerves.
The Spaniard’s seamless adaptation to Mesut Özil’s arrival in 2013 saw him move from a central attacking midfield role out wide but it was his display against Manchester City in a considerably deeper position which is perhaps his most iconic.
Cazorla was at his wriggling, penetrating best as Arsenal defeated Manchester 2-0 in January 2015 – the last time the Gunners won a Premier League match at the home of a ‘top six’ opponent. After the game Wenger revealed the secret of this triumph to the BBC: “When we won the ball, you find Santi Cazorla and you have always a chance to get out of pressure.”
Unfortunately, the enigmatic Spaniard would only have one more season in north London untarnished by fitness woes.
Players are often described as being ‘plagued by injuries’ by Cazorla recovered from an ailment which sounds as medieval as the Bubonic Plague. As the number of operations to address the bacteria eating his tendon entered double digits, Cazorla described himself as ‘a jigsaw puzzle’.
Yet, 636 days after his last professional kick, Cazorla completed his remarkable comeback by pulling on that familiar yellow Villarreal strip. After the monumental success of just completing 90 minutes in his first season back, Cazorla has swiftly instated himself as a fundamental part of this exciting, ambitious Villarreal side.
No other La Liga midfielder can boast more goal contributions than Cazorla this campaign, ensuring his departure this summer will not only be lamented by the sentimental among the Villarreal fanbase.
As Wenger implored shortly after Cazorla’s arrival at Arsenal: “I hope every young football player in England watches him.” Wise advice that everyone should adhere to, while we still can.