Arsenal take on Villarreal in the Europa League semi-finals this week, and the subplots are plentiful.
Mikel Arteta returns to La Ceramica where, as a player, his Everton side were controversially knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers in 2005; Unai Emery squares up against his former club, Arsenal; while the shared alumni is as esteemed as it gets.
The likes of Robert Pires and Santi Cazorla have donned the colours of both clubs, but it was the latter who left the biggest imprint on current Villarreal up-and-comer Samuel Chukwueze during his stint along the Mediterranean coast.
Cazorla, now plying his trade in Doha under Xavi for Al Sadd, moved from Arsenal to Villarreal in 2018 after an injury-hit few years in London, which restricted the Spaniard to just 11 appearances in his final two seasons for The Gunners.
Joining in what should have been the dotage years of his career and off the back of a career-threatening injury, Cazorla was not expected to recapture his halcyon days in LaLiga, but that is exactly what happened. A dramatic turnaround fitting of his Villarreal unveiling in 2018…
Villarreal with a low-key unveiling of Santi Cazorla… pic.twitter.com/RWYdKSem06
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) August 10, 2018
Such was Cazorla’s form back in familiar pastures that he scored 22 goals across 86 appearances before upping sticks in July, creating 71 chances in LaLiga last season alone, the fourth-best in the division, and earning a recall to the Spanish national side, where he collected an extra four caps in 2019.
Not only did he capture hearts and minds in his LaLiga swansong for Villarreal fans, but he also left a lasting impression among some of his teammates, with skilful Nigerian winger Chukwueze — who has incidentally been linked with a move to Arsenal — in awe of the ambipedal star.
When asked who the most talented player he’s seen during his time with Villarreal, LaLiga ambassador Chukwueze, speaking at an event for LiveScore, said: “It has to be Santi Cazorla, he is a fantastic player who can play so well with both feet. He is special and very very talented.”
The 21-year-old was posed several questions ahead of his side’s first leg showdown with Arsenal on Thursday, including his thoughts on current Villarreal manager and former Gunners boss Emery.
He added: “I enjoy playing under Emery. He’s amazing, and so tactical in everything he does.
“He can push you to the limit, but he is a fantastic coach. He has an amazing football brain.
“He has amazed me how I have seen him change things from game to game.
“Sometimes when I watch him from the bench, I have looked at him and noticed changes he makes which work for him that are great to see.
“He is so good at his job and is a fantastic coach.”
When quizzed on the threats Arsenal will pose in midweek, Chukwueze replied: “When the time comes, it will be up to the coach and the tactics he chooses – all I need to do is just enter the field using the skills I have practiced and give everything I have.
“We are going to play our football as normal. We are not scared or anything, we are just going to play our football as a team.”
The 19-capped Super Eagle will enjoy his 22nd birthday next month, and there’s only one present on his mind: “I’d like you to tell me that I am going to win the Europa League, just tell me that! I want to win the UEFA Europa League, thanks!”
“One of the best defensive midfielders in Europe”
Chukwueze has been a regular fixture in the Nigerian national set-up since bursting onto the scene in 2018, and there is a sense that the Super Eagles are currently in the midst of a ‘golden generation’, with Gernot Rohr’s squad festooned with elite talent from across Europe.
Two players currently underpinning that notion are Leicester City duo Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho, who have combined expertly in tandem to consolidate The Foxes’ position in the Premier League top four, and Chukwueze believes the former is among the best across the continent.
He said: “They have been amazing for a number of months now. You have seen Iheanacho scoring two goals, hat-tricks and is the most important goal scorer in the team at the moment.
“In my opinion, Ndidi is one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe and is so important to the Leicester team.
“I think they have both been really amazing and important!”
On the topic of the Premier League, Chukwueze spent time reflecting on some of the Nigerian greats who have dazzled and transfixed terraces in the English top flight over the years, namedropping a few idols who helped inspire him.
He continued: “When I was young in Nigeria, I remember I loved watching Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu. Every kid in Nigeria was watching them and these two were two of my idols growing up.”
“I didn’t watch all of them play at the time. However, watching them on YouTube all of them did amazing, so I can’t even choose one person.
“Kanu won the Premier League with Arsenal, Yakubu scored some amazing goals and was one of the only Nigerians to score a hat-trick in the Premier League. Obafemi scored a lot of goals too, all of them did amazing so I can’t choose just one.”
LaLiga ambassador Samuel Chukwueze was speaking at an event for LiveScore, Official Global Scoring Partner of LaLiga Santander. LiveScore’s iOS and Android app is available to download now: https://www.livescore.com/en/mobile/