Santi Cazorla: The resurgence of Arsenal’s former star three years on from his near career-ending injury
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On October 19, 2016, Santi Cazorla limped out of Arsenal’s Champions League group stage game against Ludogorets Razgrad. What followed was an injury hell that almost ended his career and could have left him unable to walk. But, three years on, the Spaniard is back to his brilliant best.
When Cazorla - a fan favourite in north London since joining from Malaga in 2012 - set up Mesut Ozil to score the fourth goal in the 6-0 win over Ludogorets, no one would have imagined it would be his last act as an Arsenal player.
His injury was expected to keep him out for a few weeks, but what was to follow turned out to be a near two-year nightmare that went beyond football.
After his initial recovery from the ankle issue - originally picked up on international duty in 2013 - didn't go to plan, Cazorla went under the knife in December 2016. It would be the first of eight operations.
The Spaniard contracted gangrene which started to 'eat' part of his tendon. It was feared he could lose his leg or that he may never walk again, let alone never play again. He also had a skin graft taken from his left forearm where a tattoo of his daughter's name once was.
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Arsene Wenger would go on to describe it as the worst injury he'd ever seen.
There was shock and sympathy from football fans across the world, including in his homeland, as Alex Kirkland, producer of The Spanish Football Podcast explained.
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"There's so much affection here for Santi as a player and as a man, not just from fans of Villarreal or Recreativo or Malaga, but from football fans in general," he said.
"As the severity of the injury became increasingly clear, there was a realisation that we might have seen the last of one of the most talented players of his generation, and that was a real shock."
But against all the odds, Cazorla recovered and was declared fit to return to football.
Sadly, his recovery came too late to play for Arsenal again and he was released at the end of the 2017/18 season when his contract expired.
A return to Villarreal followed for a third spell with the Yellow Submarine - playing his first game in 636 days in a friendly against Hércules - and what has happened since is a real fairytale story.
"It's been staggering," said Kirkland.
"We're talking about a guy who almost lost his leg, who was told he'd never play football again."
Cazorla has returned to his brilliant, dazzling best in Spain and is regarded as one of La Liga's top midfielders. He has also become the highest-scoring midfielder in Villarreal's history and earned a call-up to the national team, despite now being 34.
"To not just come back, but to play in the First Division, to be genuinely one of the best midfielders in Spain last season and this season, is really incredible," added Kirkland.
"His Spain call-up isn't based on sentimentality, it's based on performance."
The Gunners' decision to let the Spaniard go could be called into question considering his resurgence, but Kirkland - an Arsenal fan himself - thinks they made the right call. He also revealed that a return to his homeland was to be expected.
"I think Arsenal stood by him for a long, long time. I don't think we can criticise the club for the decision they took," he said.
"No-one could have predicted what's happened since.
"And who's to say it would have happened at Arsenal or in the Premier League, we just don't know.
"He was expected to return to Spain at some point.
"There's every chance that if the injury had never happened and he'd ever wanted to leave Arsenal, he could have come back to a big club, although the chance to join a Barcelona or Real Madrid had probably passed him by."
Cazorla's talents are undeniable, but being part of the star-studded generation of Spanish midfielders Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva has often seen him overlooked for praise.
Not from Kirkland though, who believes he ranks alongside his compatriots, saying: "He's right up there with those players in terms of ability.
"But it's a reality in Spain that if you don't play for Real Madrid or Barcelona you won't get the same amount of attention.
"If he had joined Real Madrid in 2008, who's to say what might have happened.
"But in any case, I think he is now recognised as being one of the best midfielders of his generation."
As well as his on-field displays, Cazorla's infectious smile and joyous outlook were trademarks of his time in north London. Despite the horror injury he suffered it seems that smile hasn't faded.
"I was at the Leganés-Villarreal game the other week," explained Kirkland.
"He walked through the mixed zone with a huge smile, gave Sid (Lowe, renowned Spanish football journalist) a big hug and chatted for a few minutes, then went outside and spent absolutely ages talking to the fans outside, posing for pictures and signing autographs.
"He didn't have to do that. No other player did. I think little things like that say a lot about him."
While we won't see him play for the Gunners again, his career is by no means over as he tries to make up for the 636 days of missed action.
"Right now he looks like a player who's making up for lost time," said Kirkland.
"And he's never been a player whose game is based on physique, so he could be around for a while."
Cazorla will always be remembered by Arsenal fans as a shine little in an era that will probably not be recalled with fondness in years to come.
More importantly though, he should be remembered as someone who overcame all the odds and showed just what's capable with a little fight and determination.