Villarreal: Bakambu’s Europa League Brace Could Be The Catalyst for Return to Early-Season Form

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After a fast start to the season, the goals have dried up for Villarreal striker Cedric Bakambu in recent weeks. In fact, as he and his teammates prepared to face Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Europa League Round of 16, the France-born forward had failed to score in his last 11 appearances. To extend that drought out even further, he had only scored twice in 17 matches.

It was a far cry from the form that propelled him to 13 Turkish Super Lig goals, while playing for Bursaspor, last season. Therefore, the match against Leverkusen represented a chance to arrest the slump. For Bakambu, a pacey player who can break in behind the opposition backline, a match against Roger Schmidt’s high-pressing German Bundesliga side seemed ideally suited to his capabilities. He could aim to stay on the shoulder of the last defender and wait for his moment to put his undoubted speed to good use.

Fortunately for Bakambu, he was presented with one such moment only five minutes into the contest. The 24-year-old, in predictable circumstances, aligned himself perfectly with Leverkusen’s extraordinarily advanced back four, and with the huge amounts of space into which he could sprint, all he had to do was time his run in behind. And as the ball bounced off a Leverkusen head and towards the boot of Villarreal striker Roberto Soldado, Bakambu made his move.

He surged towards goal and, with a lovely little flick to dink the ball over the Leverkusen defence, Soldado offered him the opening he’d been waiting for. Given his recent run of poor form, it wouldn’t have been overly surprising if Bakambu had snatched at the opportunity, but in stark contrast he remained extremely composed. He allowed the ball to bounce, steadied himself after his high-energy sprint and, with the side of his right foot, slotted his shot between the legs of Leverkusen ‘keeper Bernd Leno.

This high-grade piece of finishing gave Bakambu the confidence to go on with it. He repeatedly punctured the Leverkusen backline, and while his passing was at times sloppy and his first-touch at times unimpressive, he eventually broke through, in the 55th minute, to score his second of the match. Again, Bakambu speed came to the forefront as he raced onto a ball and launched in behind a stretched Bayer defence. His pace allowed him to accelerate away from the defenders behind him and, to complete his double, he again put the ball through the legs of Leno and into the back of the net.

Bakambu celebrated enthusiastically in the aftermath, and given that this represented a long-awaited return to form, nobody could have blamed him for it. He’ll be hoping this is the start of another steady stream of goals, much like the steady stream that convinced Villarreal to acquire his services €7 million at the start of the season, and much like the steady stream that he provided throughout the opening months of the current campaign.

In fact, prior to his 11-game goal drought, Bakambu had made an encouraging start to life in La Liga. He had netted eight times in the league and added a further four in Villarreal’s other competitions, leaving him with a total of 12 goals by early January. His combination of pace, power and trickery had been the key features throughout this swift period of adaptation to Spanish football, as had his anticipation and craft inside the penalty area. To back that up, Bakambu, throughout the current campaign, has yet to score a goal from outside the area in either La Liga or the Europa League, while of his 13 goals scored in those two competitions to date, five of them have come from within the six-yard box.

Clearly, then, he has a keen sense of awareness within the area, but as Bakambu has stated in the past, his teammates have been key to his success. “My team-mates help me a lot,” he told FIFA.com. “Goals don’t come on their own, you know, though I have scored quite a few (laughs). I want to keep on helping the team.”

One teammate has been particularly valuable to Bakambu, and that man is Soldado. The two have formed an at times prolific strike partnership this season, something which was especially prevalent early in the campaign. There was a hint of the unexpected in the way they linked up so seamlessly, especially given Bakambu’s status as an unknown and Soldado’s lack of production with Tottenham, but they quickly formed an excellent understanding.

So excellent, in fact, that despite Bakambu’s recent run of poor form, they still comprise the equal-most prolific assist-to-goalscorer combination in La Liga. Indeed Soldado has assisted five of Bakambu’s league goals, a feat which places them in lofty company, alongside the Luis Suarez-to-Neymar and Neymar-to-Luis Suarez combinations. To put that into perspective, Soldado has assisted more goals for Bakambu than any Real Madrid player has for Cristiano Ronaldo, and more than any of Barcelona player has for Lionel Messi. Throw in the fact that, in a crucial 1-0 win over the aforementioned Madrid, Bakambu assisted Soldado’s eighth minute winner, and there’s no doubt that the combination has been lethal when at its best.

Bakambu also produced a brilliant nutmeg to breeze by Sergio Ramos in that same encounter, and the challenge, now, is for the Bakambu-Soldado combination to regain its regular threat. That process started against Leverkusen, with Soldado’s early assist for Bakambu’s opener, and there’s so much incentive for the dynamic duo to use that as a springboard for the remainder of the campaign.

As it stands Villarreal are sitting in fourth place, a position which would be good enough to see the small-town club gain a spot in the UEFA Champions League for next season. It would be a massive achievement for the club, and one which would bring back memories of the days when a Juan Roman Riquelme-inspired Yellow Submarines would regularly make their way into the knockout rounds of Europe’s biggest club competition. A similar level of success in the Champions League is still some way off, but it isn’t out of the question if Villarreal can once again qualify for the competition.

If they are to do so, though, there’s a palpable sense that their strike team needs to deliver. After all, they were two of Villarreal’s big-money signings in the lead-up to the season, brought in with the aim of propelling the club to greater things. And, as they sit in a highly promising position, they have the chance to do exactly that.

Individually speaking, Bakambu certainly has the desire. He recently stated that making the Champions League with Villarreal was something he was eager to achieve. “I’m ambitious and I like to set targets for myself,” he said. “I don’t think you can be scared in life.”

The drive is there and the stage is set, and now, for Bakambu, it’s all about using his performance against Leverkusen as a mechanism through which to hit his peak as the season approaches its pointy end.