Santi Cazorla rolled back the years on Sunday with a magnificent assist in Villarreal’s 4-4 draw with Barcelona. It was enough to make Arsenal dream of what might have been had they not allowed their diminutive playmaker to walk out of the door last summer.
Picking the ball up from the defence Cazorla lent the ball to Samuel Chukwueze before stepping into midfield. With one stroke of his left boot he took six Barcelona defenders out of the play, unleashing Carlos Bacca to round the goalkeeper and give Villarreal a 4-2 lead.
Though the genius of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez was enough to deny victory for Cazorla et al this game will still stand as an enduring reminder of the class that made the 34-year-old so beloved in north London for six years.
That through ball for Bacca’s goal was a moment of genius that is all too familiar to those who saw the Spaniard in his prime at Arsenal.
That Cazorla is still playing like this after all the challenges he has been through is all the more remarkable. Here is a man who was warned he might never walk again during two years of agony in which he underwent 11 operations on his right ankle and Achilles.
“If you get to walk again with your son in the garden, be satisfied, they told me,” Cazorla said in late 2017.
Cazorla required antibiotic treatment and a skin graft from his left arm, where a tattoo of his daughter’s name was located.
Through it, all Arsenal stood by him, with Arsene Wenger activating an option in the Spaniard’s deal at the end of the 2016-17 season so that he could continue his rehabilitation as an Arsenal player.
When the time came to make another decision on Cazorla 12 months later there was hope that he may be able to play again, but it was the only hope.
Arsenal, who had shown the playmaker the same patience and caring that they had with the likes of Abou Diaby, still felt that they could not be sure that he would ever play again.
Daily Active understands that the Arsenal hierarchy felt that they or any other club that handed Cazorla a playing contract would be taking a significant risk. And so, with heavy hearts, they had to release their brilliant Spaniard, always wondering what might have been had they had him available for the final three seasons of his time at the club.
When Cazorla was in the Arsenal team the Gunners shone in a way they rarely did without him. He was the ultimate multiplying force: Mesut Ozil was a more decisive contributor in the final third thanks to the sharp, penetrative passing that came his way, Francis Coquelin looked like the dominant holding midfielder Wenger had long needed and everyone was playing with the Spaniard’s infectious smile.
It is said that the Arsenal squad applauded Wenger after Cazorla’s first training session, so enamoured were they with the 5ft 5in magician. With him, in the team the Gunners looked a different force altogether.
They probably would have beaten Leicester to the league in 2016, when they frittered away points against the likes of Stoke, Southampton and Swansea.
The following season began with Cazorla and Arsenal in spectacular form, winning 75 per cent of their games and tearing Chelsea to shreds.
When Cazorla suffered that second season-ending injury, against Ludogorets on October 19 2016, Arsenal were top of the table. They would end he season fifth, missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in Wenger’s stint.