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Nani, Pato, Boateng, Arda and More: LaLiga's Year of the Resurgence Seekers

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2016

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Luis Nani of Portugal celebrates with champagne the victory following the UEFA Euro 2016 final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Saint-Denis near Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

The crowds in attendance were of different sizes, but at each location, there was a similar feel. Excitement was evident, but more than that, in a way these felt like necessary fresh starts for the men at the centre of them.

At Mestalla, Nani was unveiled in front of around 10,000 Valencia fans in mid-July. His entrance was marked by an abundance of that this-is-a-big-deal smoke, and the Portuguese's capoeira routine added to the sense of festivity.

Two weeks later, Alexandre Pato turned out in front of a similarly enthused audience at the Ermita de la Mare de Deu de Gracia after completing his move to Villarreal. The next day, Kevin-Prince Boateng was presented at the Estadio de Gran Canaria amid a sea of the same colour, in his case that of Las Palmas.

Nani, Pato and Boateng are big names in football, though their critics might argue the past tense is more accurate here. There's perhaps been a degree of truth to that in the last year or two, a concurrent movement out of the spotlight that has now given this an intriguing edge, it being a sort of simultaneous arrival of resurgence seekers.

They're not alone in that search, either.

There's an array of prominent faces in LaLiga at present, both new and existing, looking for new beginnings or the opportunity to relaunch careers. At Barcelona, Arda Turan is in a sense attempting to start again at the Camp Nou; at Celta Vigo, Giuseppe Rossi is seeking to put injuries behind him; at Athletic Bilbao, Iker Muniain is similar; at Sevilla, Luciano Vietto is aiming to recover a lost spark and Paulo Henrique Ganso is out to dispel the what-ifs.

Deadline day gave us more in the form of Eliaquim Mangala and Samir Nasri, who, as Manchester City confirmed, have joined Valencia and Sevilla on loan, respectively, seeking something they once had but now don't.

There are others, too. These are just the headliners.

Unusual? Maybe.

MARCA in English @MARCAinENGLISH

Pato excited by the challenge he faces at @VillarrealCF 🙌 Will he be a success? https://t.co/8wsv7lEjED https://t.co/U7WlfLEe3G

Every season and in every league, there is always a collection of players looking to reverse trends and set about recovery. The nature of football determines that there must, and perhaps such a theme has always been as strong in LaLiga as it looks now.

Still, though, this season in Spain's top division feels different in this respect: Maybe it's just this writer's dubious memory, but it's difficult to recall a year in which such an array of prominent names in the continental game were looking for resurgence on Spanish shores at the same time, whether it be at a new or existing club.

But let's not get carried away. The concept of resurgence is a familiar one in sport but one that we're guilty of overdoing. Upon the thought of it, it's easy to dip into montage mode, picturing shadowy scenes and a haunting soundtrack of Placebo depicting a derailment and the subsequent path back.

That's not what this is.

When Nani was presented with fanfare at Mestalla last month, he was asked of the difference between Nani the Manchester United player and Nani the now-Valencia player.

"Experience," he said.

It was a simple but telling response. The Portuguese has now tasted most of what football has to offer—the pressure, the fame, the intensity of the swirl around it, the highs and the lows, the nature of the ride—and has that up his sleeve as he looks to go again.

To him, his time at United didn't end the way it should. There's always been a feeling of being an unfulfilled talent, but in 2013 he signed a new five-year deal at the club, only to be largely left out by then-manager David Moyes. Louis van Gaal, Moyes' successor, then loaned him out and eventually sold him.

Nani recently described that contract as one that should have been the best moment of his life but ended up being the worst in an interview with the Guardian's David Hytner.

"After you sign a contract like that, you think all the people will be behind you and help you," he said. "And you see the opposite. Then the stress comes. I was down. It was a bad moment. It was something that made me very down, very disappointed."

Of course, Nani is coming off a high internationally after winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, but domestically his career needs a kick-start after spells at Sporting Lisbon and Fenerbahce. You sense there's a bit of "I'll show you" in him right now. He hasn't come to Valencia for a holiday.

"Many people think I'm going to relax, but that's not in my mind," he added at his unveiling. "I come here with a lot of ambition."

MARCA in English @MARCAinENGLISH

Nani, wearing the no.17, was presented in front of Valencia fans earlier today. https://t.co/XmkUWt7gbJ

At nearby Villarreal, Pato's task is bigger.

His is a career that is essentially split in two. From Internacional to AC Milan, the Brazilian looked almost certain to soar. In Serie A he was an instant hit, and as a striker his game had an alluring quality: powerful but graceful; smooth and lethal. But for Pato, the speed of his ascent was part of the problem.

"Many in youth development in the Brazilian game talk about the phenomenon of a footballer's delayed adolescence," South American football expert Tim Vickery wrote for Bleacher Report in January. The suggestion is that personal growth is stunted by football, which quickly brings a world that most are not ready for.

"As he makes his way up the ranks, concentrating on his game, his non-footballing friends are out having adventures," Vickery continued. "Then, at the time he signs his first big contract, he feels more secure, the temptations of celebrity appear, and he suddenly wants to catch up on all of those experiences his friends have been enjoying."

It's hard not to feel this applies to Pato. At Milan, injuries hit and his life away from the pitch became the focus. The causes were multidimensional, but without the relentlessness and diligence of those at the top, and distracted by a world that came too soon, the Brazilian found himself slipping. Soon he was back in Brazil rather than gracing Europe.

Villarreal is his second chance.

"Succeeding at Villarreal is a beautiful challenge for me," he said at his presentation. "For me it is very important to have this opportunity at a club like Villarreal. I am fully focused on being able to play again at the highest level."

The simple mention of "again" was significant, a subtle admission that he's determined this path; that he hasn't always had the focus he now speaks of.

B/R Football @brfootball

It’s what Alexandre Pato does in his debuts ⚽️👌. (h/t @TimDCollins) https://t.co/csgqIRsALi

Developing that focus has proved equally challenging for Boateng.

In England, his time with Tottenham Hotspur is remembered more for his love of London's nightlife than its football pitches. "I think everybody knows that I had a difficult time in England when I arrived here," he said in 2013. "I was young, I had all the money. I was choosing the wrong way in that situation because I was not experienced enough."

From Spurs, Boateng went to Borussia Dortmund on loan, back to Spurs, on to the sinking Portsmouth and then to AC Milan. At the San Siro, he was a team-mate of Pato's, and his first stint there is fondly remembered; following a two-year spell back in Germany with Schalke, the second isn't. The fit was wrong. He never got going.

Boateng is now 29. It's the sort of age at which footballers are often seeking one of the last big moves of their career. Playing time is important, of course, but so is exposure and earning potential.

Why Las Palmas, then?

"It's a new adventure for me," he said at his unveiling. "I have chosen Las Palmas because I felt loved."

It seems that way. Club president Miguel Angel Ramirez labelled Boateng a "Galactico," the famous term synonymous with Real Madrid's signings. His almost unprecedented arrival has heightened the sense of what's possible for Las Palmas, too, and the season's opening weeks have shown it. Quique Setien's men are a joy to watch, have two wins from two and have scored nine goals in the process. Boateng has two of them.

He'd been told to expect this by Mubarak Wakaso, who played for Las Palmas last season and is a team-mate of Boateng's for Ghana. "He told me this is a quality team," he said to the club's official website (h/t Football Espana) at the time of his presentation. "I've seen some games, with modern attacking football. That will suit me well."

Living on Gran Canaria should, too. It's not a bad place to play your football.

Ghanasoccernet.com @Ghanasoccernet

VIDEO: Kevin-Prince Boateng draws massive crowd during Las Palmas presentation https://t.co/UEhRlqubcO https://t.co/6hSXUOOGz5

Nor is Barcelona and nor is Madrid, but they're not always easy.

At the Camp Nou, Turan has found that being stylistically compatible isn't enough in itself. Integrating oneself at Barcelona is perhaps harder than anywhere, the club's on-field existence and identity so unique. Fitting in requires time—even if you're Luis Suarez—but Turan didn't have that last season.

His opening 12 months in Spain's north-east was a period of interruptions, with spells on the sidelines due to the club's ban on registering players and limited opportunities. Rarely was he effective, and ridicule followed when his old club Atletico Madrid dumped him and Barcelona out of the Champions League.

But the new season looks better. The Turk already has three goals and three assists, and he looks more comfortable as a wide forward than a midfielder. Challenges will return when Neymar does, but the trajectory is encouraging.

"It is a real struggle to enter into the dynamic of this team but now we are seeing the Arda of old," Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said recently. "I'm happy to see him more integrated, happy and participating more."

Another to have stepped away from Atletico, Vietto looks a better fit in Jorge Sampaoli's free-flowing Sevilla than in the attritional sides of Diego Simeone. Already, he has more league goals than he did last season, and at the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, creativity and aggression should reign above all else. The anticipation is that will aid the likes of Ganso and Nasri, too, men looking for a lift-off of their own.

It's this theme of individual resurgence that strikes as strong in LaLiga. It's led by new faces in Nani, Pato and Boateng, but also goes beyond them to prominent existing ones such as Vietto and Muniain; to returning ones such as Rossi; to temporary arrivals such as Nasri and Mangala.

There are others, too. Can we call it the year of the resurgence seekers? Maybe.

Just don't get out the montages.

                       

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