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Spain's lost star is finally shining bright

 • by David Cartlidge
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With Real Madrid star Isco given plaudits week in, week out, you do wonder, if things had gone differently, whether another Spanish player would be receiving the same. That someone is Sergio Canales.

There was a time before Isco, before Marco Asensio, before Saúl, that Canales was seen as the next great hope of Spanish football. After all, few others had burst on to the scene in the way he did in 2010.

A thin, blonde, wispy figure with the frame of a young boy, Canales might’ve not looked like a star yet but he played like one. Racing Santander, who were in the UEFA Cup at the time, decided to bring through one of their own.

He made his first-team debut in September 2008, but it wasn’t until over a year later he captured the imagination of the whole of Spain.

Eleven games into the 2009/10 season Racing were 17th, with just seven points to their name. Miguel Ángel Portugal took over and made one single change; bringing Canales into the team.

Over the course of the next eight games he played 346 minutes. In that time he scored five goals from his first four league starts, achieving something several great names couldn’t – it took Raúl ten games, David Villa and Fernando Torres 23.

Canales-mania truly took off, however, after a stunning performance against Sevilla. The month prior he’d scored a brace against Espanyol, he repeated the trick at the Sánchez Pizjuán. It wasn’t the fact he scored twice though that standout, it was the manner in which he did it.

For the first, Andrés Palop raced out only to be humbled by the teenager, who calmly scooped the ball over his head. The second showed uncanny composure. With Canales again breaking clear, he sat Palop down with a cheeky touch, beat a covering defender and finished.

He was later substituted and the Sánchez Pizjuán rose to its feet. Their team, their idols, had been torn apart by a teenager who looked like he had got lost on his way from college.

“Canales dresses up as Maradona,” was the headline in Marca the next day as interest in the teenager went into overdrive. Girls waited outside Racing’s training ground. Team-mates were in awe of his talent. La Liga and Premier League clubs sent scouts in their droves to see him. Spain’s media could hardly contain themselves.

Guti, Julen Guerrero, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Michael Laudrup; Canales was compared to the lot of them at some point. 

A player who had been touted for great things and talked about since he was 11 was delivering. But there was one issue, his physique. 

The club were concerned about his frame and lack of physical development. Racing protected him in his early years, and he rarely finished 90 minutes.

But one could’ve accounted for what would happen later in his career.

A move to Real Madrid came, though far too soon. A loan spell at Valencia seemed ideal for the player but the club were in chaos. And then the first of a series of injuries came.

Twice with Valencia, who he would join permanently in 2012, he ruptured ligaments in his right knee. There were glimpses of his enormous talent while at Mestalla but ultimately he never settled. Real Sociedad then came to see if they could save his undoubted talent in January 2014. 

The worst would happen again 18 months later, another ligament injury. This time in left knee.

At Valencia, while on the sidelines, he would watch inspirational NBA clips and spoke with Juan Carlos Valerón – another gifted player besieged with injuries throughout his career. He would need to draw upon all those sources once again.

Canales can perhaps be criticised for several things but the sheer desire and determination to play can’t be: “Even if I’ve done something wrong, or make errors, I want the ball again,” he said in an interview with El País.

This attitude has pulled him through setbacks that would destroy the strongest sportsman. And today Canales is playing the best football of his career.

He’s put on weight and his body has finally filled out. The midfielder is meaner in games, more aggressive. He’s produced 11 assists across both La Liga and Europa League this season.

With an xA90 (expected goals assisted per 90) of 0.14 this season, he has risen above that and produced 0.33 assists per 90 minutes.

But with Canales it feels the most important number is his minutes. This season he’s played a total of 1365 in LaLiga. Add in the Europa League and it’s just shy of 2000 minutes played.

While he’s not started every game, he’s been a considerable influence and provides a soothing presence in midfield. His calmness and unbelievable confidence on the ball sets him apart from many other players of his type. 

Another key juncture in his career may be upon us, with talk of a move to ambitious Real Betis picking up momentum. The thought of Canales in Quique Setién side makes the mouth water. 

Wherever he ends up, the most important thing is that the 27-year-old is playing. Too often we, the fans, have been robbed of talented individuals due to injuries, and the young Cantabrian has already lost so much time.

He is showing, however, it’s still not too late to make his mark.

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