The ball was laid out perfectly for Michu in this, his first competitive match for Napoli. He could have won the first leg of this Champions League playoff against Athletic Bilbao, a club he knows from his La Liga days. Instead, he laid off the ball to a teammate and the play fizzled out.
That is not usual for the 28-year-old Spaniard. He is usually deadly in the penalty area—unassuming, unexpected, perhaps too meek on this occasion. He is not your mainstream striker. “Michu is a player that can play in two positions,” coach Rafa Benitez told reporters (h/t ESPNFC) after taking Michu on a season-long loan from Swansea City. “He can play as a striker or as a loan forward. He is able to penetrate and score but also knows how to play with other strikers.”
Benitez also told him to score a certain number of goals this year. “Just to motivate him,” said Benitez, “but he first has to adapt to the team and get to know his teammates.”
That may not take long. Michu played with several Spaniards at Swansea, and he is doing the same with Napoli. Benitez is Spanish, and so are teammates Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon. More importantly, he can speak the language with partner Gonzalo Higuain, the man Michu could complement or replace if necessary.
Even midfielder Jonathan de Guzman, a teammate at Swansea as well, has joined Napoli. Michu's surroundings are not so foreign.
Michu gives some depth to a team like Napoli, who should challenge in the Champions League if they can get past Bilbao. But he is not just a replacement: He scored 22 goals in 43 games during the 2012-13 season with Swansea. Michu is proven at the highest level.
But over the past few years, he has been the star of his team. Now he is part of a greater cast, very much a part of a team, which has always been his own personal mantra. When he was playing Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, he started every game.
“When I signed him I made it clear to him that it was going to be Michu and 10 others on my team sheet,” said former Vallecano coach Jose Ramon Sandoval, per The Independent. Once they lost their defensive midfielder, Michu was determined to play there. “We won’t concede a single goal,” he said.
Benitez seems intent to slot in Michu wherever there is an opening. He is almost too good a player to keep on the bench. Last year, Michu struggled with an ankle injury, and you can bet he wants to make an impact now, before he passes 30, before perhaps returning to Swansea, a city he said he loves, per The Guardian.
All signs suggest that he is an easy player to deal with. He would say to Sandoval (per The Independent): “‘Mister, don’t ever get tired of correcting me.’ He was one of those players who had an insatiable desire to improve.”
Michu played in the third, second and first divisions in Spain. He is used to the journey. He is used to a challenge, and there are no guarantees at Napoli.
Then again, to play in the top flight—let alone for a team with a chance of actually winning something—was not so obvious. Michu once turned down the chance to play in the first division in Spain because Sporting Gijon were rivals of Real Oviedo, his boyhood club. “I’d like to make it as a professional footballer,” he once said (h/t ESPNFC). That’s all—just to make it.
He has done so much more. Michu started, really, as a skilled attacking midfielder with great timing. Not necessarily with pace. He would arrive in the penalty area without much ado. But the aftermath is usually devastating: a goal out of nowhere.
Perhaps just like Michu himself.
There is time for him to establish some kind of partnership with Higuain. Michu could easily play behind him. Clearly it is the end of Goran Pandev’s time at Napoli, and if Michu can play at least as much as Pandev did—at least 30 games a year—then he will have another good chance to succeed.