Following the sales of David Villa, David Silva and most recently Juan Mata, greater responsibility has progressively shifted to the next brightest squad member within the Valencia squad. The latest to shoulder the responsibility of leading and inspiring the dressing room is new captain Roberto Soldado, whose hat-trick that rescued Los Che from a potentially embarrassing home defeat to Racing Santander on Saturday evening suggests he is more than up to the task.
Now in his second season at Mestalla, Soldado appears to be fulfilling the early potential that once saw him regarded as one of the most talented striking prospects in Spain during his teenage years. Crucially, at the same time as reaching that potential, the Valencian native is finding his feet to take lead of the club’s dressing room.
In Spain’s Under-17, Under-19 and Under-21 teams, Soldado scored 26 goals in 39 games which, combined with a healthy goal return better than one in two for Real Madrid Castilla, inevitably prompted comparisons with Raul.
Despite a winner against Olympiacos in the Champions League at the age of 20, the centre-forward’s Bernabeu career was more comparable to another prospect who ultimately did not make the grade – Javier Portillo – than the legendary No 7. Frozen out under Fabio Capello and Bernd Schuster at Madrid, Soldado found himself forced the find football elsewhere, despite his stated determination he would rather have stayed.
It proved further down the Primera Division table that Soldado was able to establish himself as a competent and reliable line-leader. First at Osasuna and then in two seasons with Getafe, the former Madrid player’s form – for instance finishing as top scorer at Getafe in 2009-10 with 18 goals – was enough to attract the interest of Valencia Coach Unai Emery who sought a direct replacement for the departing Villa. Soldado responded to the move back up the table first by striking an excellent understanding with Aritz Aduriz, and then in taking a lone role, combined that saw him finish as his latest club’s top scorer with 25 goals from 44 played.
Direct and opportunistic, Soldado plays as a classic No 9. He comes alive in the penalty box and his ability to get into the right position is his strongest asset. This is now matched with an improved composure in his finishing – last season he averaged an impressive four shots per goal, which has improved substantially from the six shots per goal he required at Getafe. More tellingly, this compares favourably with the man he replaced at Mestalla, Villa, who needed double that total last year.
Born: May 27, 1985 (Valencia, Valencian Community)
Height: 5ft10½ Weight: 72kg
Key attributes: Finishing, aerial threat, focal point in attack
Previous clubs: Real Madrid, Osasuna, Getafe
La Liga debut: For Real Madrid, October 23, 2005 vs. Valencia
Spain debut: June 2, 2007 vs. Latvia (2008 European Championship qualifier)
Nevertheless, the 26-year-old does not possess the all-round game of Villa. Despite his heroics against Racing, the performance was what the Valencianistas had come to expect – threatening in front of goal, less effective with his back to goal. In possession at the weekend he was somewhat wasteful, losing the ball with 39% of his passes.
Yet fans of Valencia are likely to care little if he continues a run of form comparable at the moment to only Cristiano Ronaldo. The Valencia striker’s hat-trick was the sixth of his Primera Division career and sees him with 15 goals in his last 10 La Liga games – a record only bettered by Ronaldo with 16.
On top of his goalscoring abilities, what is likely to endear the attacker among the supporters is his commitment to the Taronja cause. In his home town, Soldado has developed a rapport with the fans, citing their support on Saturday as ‘inspirational.’ He remains relentlessly optimistic in the face of cutbacks, last year claiming: “if we have faith in our own abilities, surely we will win something,” followed this year by the declaration that: “surely this will be a great season.”
Further to his infectious enthusiasm, he has demonstrated a touch of modesty too. In scoring the goal that sealed Deportivo La Coruna’s relegation to the Segunda Division, Soldado was almost apologetic in refusing to celebrate at Riazor, as he was when he returned to Getafe and netted four times.
Soldado carries respect, responsibility and the ability to inspire with his football, and in terms of timing for Emery’s most crucial season at Mestalla, is perfectly placed as the club’s latest captain marvel.