Football often has a habit of making a fool out of logic, and the element of chance also loves taking a starring role.
Something that spells disaster for one can often mean triumph for another, with opportunities either slipping away or being grasped in equal measure, on the pitch and off.
Take Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez as an example. Before you do, take note of his accomplished midfield performances of late—the most recent coming in Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over Real Sociedad, in which he volleyed home expertly.
Saul is surely one of the first names on Diego Simeone’s teamsheet at present, with his versatile talents making it possible for him to look at home in almost any area of the pitch. But the mere fact that pitch is still housed at Atletico’s Estadio Vicente Calderon is still somewhat down to chance. It could have all been so different, largely down to three things.
As Karl Matchett pointed out on these pages recently, Saul started out as a Real Madrid youth player, playing at the club between 2006 and 2008 before Los Blancos released him. Saul then joined Atletico. Had someone at Real spotted his talent sooner, then he would surely have stayed there.
Secondly, after a successful loan spell at Rayo Vallecano in the 2013/14 season, the young Saul was—as so many before him were—linked with a big-money move to the Premier League, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all credited with an interest by the Express. He stayed put in the Spanish capital.
Then thirdly came the afternoon of November 28, 2015, when a broken leg for the veteran Portuguese midfielder Tiago—Saul was making just a third Primera Division start of the season in that game against Espanyol—opened up a midfield spot in Simeone’s plans.
Saul wouldn’t have wanted to see his older team-mate injured, of course, but this was an opportunity he wasn’t going to pass up.
He’s played 32 times this season, in a variety of roles, scoring seven goals.
For most other countries, the 21-year-old would be an established international star by now, but with the list of midfielders available to Spain manager Vicente del Bosque longer than your average piece of string, there isn’t too much pressure on the veteran boss to pick him.
“Better call Saul” into the senior national team isn’t a plea that has needed to be made too often simply because of the outright quality that exists elsewhere, but the midfielder was in the squad for clashes with Costa Rica, a friendly, and Belarus, a UEFA Euro 2016 qualifier, last May. And he’s certainly playing better than he was back then.
With 15 under-21 caps to his name, his versatility would also be a huge asset to a Spain midfield that is still undergoing something of a revamp from the glory days of 2008 to 2012.
Of the recognised regulars in midfield in recent years, Santi Cazorla has suffered with injuries this season, Juan Mata remains an almost permanent enigma and Cesc Fabregas has had more downs than ups this season. That being said, it would still be a huge call for Del Bosque to leave out names such as theirs when he decides on his final 23 for France in the summer.
Saul faces an uphill battle to be included as an option for any of the midfield roles he is performing so well in. But given the form he’s displaying, he is making it increasingly tougher for Del Bosque to overlook him.
Perhaps an element of chance will again be on his side and open up a spot for him, but even if it does, you can be sure he would have deserved his opportunity.
Because right now, he is one of the most complete midfielders in La Liga, and there is nothing lucky about that.
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