Somewhere around the middle of 2008, Bojan Krkic was playing an impressive squad role as Barcelona's revamped team saw Lionel Messi take centre stage and Ronaldinho play out his final days as their No. 10.
Had anyone suggested then that he would complete a move to Stoke City—then a promotion-chasing Championship side playing the aggressive, stilted, lumbering football which would soon be criticised in the top flight—within half a dozen years, a vast majority of responses would have been somewhere along the lines of a snort of derision or a complete ignoring. And rightly so.
Bojan's star looked bright and his career on an upward trajectory, but as reported by BBC Sport, the one-cap Spaniard has indeed transferred to the Britannia Stadium in a move which the Potters will take as a sign of their own ambition. In reality it points more toward a huge failure to reach his potential on the player's part.
Following a great debut campaign in 07-08 where he scored 12 goals in La Liga, Bojan was widely tipped to make the Euro 2008 squad for Spain. Instead, he cited fatigue as a reason not to be included, missing out on what was eventually a successful tournament for the national team as their period of dominance began.
Had he been a part of that, swept away in all the celebration and success which followed, would things have changed? Would the mental aspect of the game have seen him through a tough patch?
He didn't make the squad in the end, and he scored just twice the following season. Despite a better showing in the following campaign, 09-10, it was becoming apparent that Bojan wasn't hitting the heights of his debut season and he was nowhere near the Spanish squad at the time of the 2010 World Cup, having failed to add to his debut for the national team in late 2008.
Just a single season more at Barcelona followed before Bojan headed out to Roma on a complicated two-year deal which meant the Italians either needed to pay almost €30 million to keep him beyond that point, or else Barca could buy him back.
He was unsuccessful in Serie A, scoring just 10 goals in two years with Roma then AC Milan, and spent last season on loan from Barcelona—who had to buy him back in 2013—to Ajax. Even in the Eredivisie, Bojan was not a regular starter and scored only four times.
Stoke's New Era
Once the decision to have Stoke play more offensive, smooth and technical football was made, there was only one outcome: an exit for Tony Pulis.
Mark Hughes, as his replacement, made gradual changes to the style, keeping Stoke's aggressive defensive play in place, while encouraging his players to play out from the back. The signings of Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic hinted at Hughes wanting his side to be more creative, technique-minded and offensive, but it took a while for things to fall into place.
The signing in January of Peter Odemwingie was important, bringing pace and directness to the attack.
In some ways, it is the relative success of Arnautovic which might give hope to Bojan and his fans that the Spaniard can resurrect his career; for many years, Arnautovic was seen as hugely gifted yet unreliable, at times even a liability with his behaviour and selfish play.
Hughes has gotten plenty of telling performances out of him, though, along with an impressive work ethic—all the while giving the Austrian the platform to show his best attacking instincts.
Bojan the Potter
Can the same be applied to Bojan?
Once a pacy forward with great movement and composure in the penalty box, the now-23-year-old has looked utterly bereft of confidence or instinct over the past few seasons.
There is a player in there, for sure, but it is going to take a mammoth effort to even coax out part of his unrealised potential. Starting as a left-sided forward for Barcelona, Bojan used his ability to run beyond defenders and exploit space, latching onto through-passes. He is most assuredly not a wide midfielder and if Stoke attempt to use him as such, they'll get aimless wide running, safe infield play and little meaningful defensive cover, beyond the obligatory tracking back into position.
Can they afford to have him as a centre-forward? Probably not, unless he shows some serious resolve and improvement in preseason.
It's a tactical question for Mark Hughes, as well as one of eking some extra confidence out of the player. If Bojan is a success at Stoke over the next season or two, it at least raises the possibility of him rejoining a bigger club and stepping back toward where onlookers thought the 16-year-old version of him might end up.
For Stoke, though, the addition of one of Europe's biggest names, albeit from a few years ago, is a sign of their continuing improvement as a club and the fact that they are able to take the odd gamble in the hope of reaping mighty rewards.
As for fans of Barcelona's attacking ethos in the late 2000s...at least this season will offer the answer to one of life's more burning questions. Could any of them do it on a cold, winter's night in Stoke?
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