The DR Congo international has hit 20 goals so far this season for the first time in Spain. Lee Roden explains why Barcelona are sniffing around and English clubs could make a move this summer…
If there’s one thing Villarreal do well, it’s picking a striker. In the decade-and-a-half since the Yellow Submarine became an established La Liga side, forwards like Diego Forlan, Giuseppe Rossi, Nilmar and Luciano Vietto have all hit double figures in front of goal for the humble outfit, helping them to pull off feats like appearing in the Champions League semi-finals and a 2nd-place finish in La Liga.
The side from Castellon have continued that trend this season with new dangerman Cedric Bakambu. Against Getafe last weekend, the forward scored his 20th goal of 2015/16; with a minimum of seven games left to play before the club’s competitive year is complete, he could yet break Forlan’s record of 25 goals in a debut season for Villarreal.
His recent form certainly suggests that benchmark is achievable: with eight strikes in his previous seven appearances, Bakambu has been the source of eight of his team’s last 12 goals. To use the Spanish term, he’s currently in a momento dulce – a sweet moment.
Like many of Villarreal’s signings, the striker wasn’t an obvious source of magic – or at least not obvious enough to the bigger clubs they beat to the punch. Although he scored 21 times in a solitary season at Bursaspor in Turkey, making the step up from a league ranked 11th in the world to a side fighting for a top-four spot in La Liga is never a given.
There was certainly an element of risk to the transfer: the €7 million Villarreal paid for Bakambu’s services was a notable investment by their standards. Eight months later, though, it’s already paid off.
The summer signing wasted little time proving his worth, scoring a brace against Espanyol in his first home game in Spain and immediately endearing himself to his new team’s supporters. Since then, his victims have included Sevilla and Barcelona, with Bakambu demonstrating a capacity to perform on the biggest occasions that is supported by his European numbers: his seven goals in the Europa League match those from Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with Aritz Aduriz of Athletic Bilbao the only man ahead of him in the competition’s scoring charts.
BRAIN POWER, PHYSICAL POWER
Bakambu clearly has the finishing touch, but it’s the variety of ways he gets into good positions to use it that impresses most.
As Sparta Prague found out last week, the DR Congo international has blistering pace. His frighteningly quick closing down of goalkeeper David Bicik led to a opener in the third minute, with Villarreal going on to record a 2-1 victory in the first leg.
Yet focusing too much on the attacker’s athleticism does him a disservice. Intelligence is certainly not lacking in Bakambu’s game, his movement varying between playing off the shoulder and dropping back into pockets of space in order to set himself up for poacher-style follow-up shots.
The No.17 also has great skill at his disposal, with Real Madrid all too aware of his creative streak. Against los Blancos in December, neither Sergio Ramos nor Pepe looked comfortable trying to defend against him.
The former was left embarrassed when he was nutmegged after a smart drop of the shoulder that was replayed repeatedly on Spanish television, while the latter was suckered into trying to block a shot that never came, only for Bakambu to roll the ball nonchalantly across the area for Roberto Soldado to score the winner in the 1-0 victory (above).
WORKING IN TANDEM
Bakambu’s relationship with the former Tottenham man has developed quickly over the season, to the point that their understanding now looks instinctive: the elder striker constantly finds his team-mate with first-time passing on the break.
Their partnership isn’t dissimilar to the one forged by Diego Costa and David Villa at Atletico Madrid, Bakambu playing the role of the goalscorer and Soldado the older, less prolific but tactically sharp partner. The duo have linked up for nine of Villarreal’s goals this season, performing key roles in Marcelino’s incredibly solid and effective team.
So effective, in fact, that 4th place is now Villarreal’s to lose, and their return to the Champions League for the first time since 2011 now agonisingly close. They’re also in a great position to reach their second ever Europa League semi-final on Thursday.
The glory could come at a cost, however, as increased attention will mean increased interest in their best players – Bakambu chief among them.
When Barcelona travelled to El Madrigal in March, Mundo Deportivo claimed the Catalan club’s technical secretary Robert Fernandez – effectively their sporting director – kept a particularly close eye on Bakambu. The Blaugrana will be in the market for an additional striker this summer, and after several moves for Celta Vigo man Nolito broke down, it isn’t unfeasible that they’d consider a move for someone younger than the 29-year-old.
What’s perhaps less realistic is that they’d decide to take a punt on a player with only one season in Spain under his belt; a move to a team the size of Barça is more probable after Bakambu has some Champions League experience under his belt.
That isn’t to say other teams wouldn’t be willing to gamble this summer, though; Villarreal are, after all, a selling club. The striker’s style seems tailor-made for the Premier League in particular, where the relative openness and increased availability of space could make him even more deadly.
With English clubs making a habit of letting other teams do their scouting then paying a premium for the more finished product, a switch to England wouldn’t be a surprise. Villarreal supporters, however, will be desperate to hold onto their next great goalscorer for as long as possible.