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Spain’s New Samba Star Can Oust Costa

 • by David Cartlidge
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It’s easy to forget the curious path Rodrigo has taken to the top, especailly as he peeled away to celebrate a goal against Germany which has put him in pole position to be Spain’s lead striker at the World Cup.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, the striker never represented Brazil at any level. Taken to Spain in his early teens, he shone in Celta Vigo’s youth academy to the extent that Real Madrid stumped up cash to sign the then 18-year-old. 

Still, however, he would not find true success until he joined Benfica in Portugal in 2010. He won four titles with the club, including a treble in the 2013/14 season.

But buried in those early days at Benfica was a somewhat bizarre loan spell with Bolton Wanderers, one that may turn out to be one of the great football quiz questions. 

Rodrigo remembers his stay at the Macron Stadium well. And despite only scoring once in his 18 appearances, he believes it proved beneficial to his development.

“You need to be strong to play in England. I wasn’t a regular starter for Bolton but I did get a lot of minutes. I enjoyed it. It was my first year as a professional in a first team and I’ll always be grateful to Owen Coyle for taking me to Bolton,” the striker said back in 2014.

While his development has been steady as opposed to spectacular, Rodrigo seems to reaching a level beyond where he’s been before. While his time with Benfica was littered with goals, including 18 in that treble-winning season, there now appears genuine signs of a complete striker.

His eye for goal, movement in the penalty area and heading ability have never been in question. Whether he could raise his level in those areas, and improve upon his weaknesses, were. At Valencia though he has gone about working on those and as a result has improved tenfold as a player.

It’s even more impressive considering Rodrigo’s time at Mestalla has been blighted by injuries – there was even a period when the fans at the club were wondering if he’d ever settle.

His work ethic, attitude and commitment were always there but the end product and quality eluded him. It was a frustrating time because the player gave so much but ended up with so little in return.

Only since Marcelino’s arrival at Valencia last summer has there been a significant change in Rodrigo’s game. If there was something missing it was conviction in his play, he never truly seemed assured of his actions.

Rodrigo can now see things more clearly. He has featured in three roles; as a wide player, a striker and a second striker, playing off a main centre forward. In all of them he’s proved competent, useful and at times spectacular.

It’s playing off a main striker where he seems to fit the best, and at times he’s even played off a pair, such is his ability not only to associate with the forward line but his midfield.

When Valencia are encountering problems with their attacking transitions they turn to Rodrigo.

He’s aware of how and when to link with the midfield to move his team up the pitch. His dribbling is good, he’s quick and to the surprise of many his vision on the field is impressive. He doesn’t have the look of a creative type but Rodrigo undoubtedly has it in his locker.

As of March only Dani Parejo and Arsenal transfer target Gonçalo Guedes lead him in assists at Valencia, and they are two players primed as creators.

But Rodrigo, being a striker, will always be judged by his goal tally. In his first two seasons at the club, he managed just seven in all competitions. Upon that the 27-year-old was judged harshly, especially given there is so much more to his whole game.

However, in 2017/18 he had seven goals after just 11 games. As a reward he was handed a new contract until 2022 in Novemberas talk swirled of a move to Tottenham Hotspur as a possible replacement for – or to compliment – Harry Kane.

Marcelino’s work with the player, instilling that self belief, has come full circle and the praise from the Valencia boss couldn’t be any more glowing.

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“He is the forward who runs the most, the one who participates the most, the one that plays with the highest intensity levels and the one who helps the team the most. On top of that, he’s scoring”.

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui couldn’t help but be taken with the improvement of Rodrigo, a player with whom he has worked with previously at under-21 level. Now he could be leading Spain’s forward line in Russia this summer.

With Àlvaro Morata misfiring in England, Iago Aspas not playing with a club competing at the top end of the table and doubts over Diego Costa suitability, an opportunity has opened up for Rodrigo to stake his claim. Like his club boss said, there is nothing right now he actually can’t do.

In his auditions for Spain he’s not faltered. Back in October upon his return to the international scene he struck against Albania. He did the same against Germany on Friday when given a start. He’s doing everything right. 

From Rio to Vigo, Madrid to Benfica – with a little stop in Bolton – and finally Valencia. It has been some journey but the doubts over Rodrigo are disappearing, in the minds of others and the player himself.

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