Things haven't been easy for David Villa since his return to action at the start of the season. The Barcelona forward fractured a tibia playing in the Club World Cup in December of 2011 and missed the rest of the season, including the European Championships.
When he became available again at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, he announced his return from eight months out with a goalscoring 15-minute cameo against none other than Real Sociedad.
When Barcelona lost to the same side on Saturday, Villa was absent with a hamstring injury. The added insult is that he sustained the problem during a King's Cup match against Cordoba, in which he scored twice and looked sharp, hungry and most importantly involved.
So far this season Villa has made only six Liga starts, coming on seven times and not making it off the bench on four occasions. Before Barcelona's final Champions League match against Benfica, with qualification already assured, Villa played just 63 minutes in Europe. In the cup, a competition in which Barcelona regularly fields its fringe players, El Guaje has scored five in four matches and added two assists; a goal every 66 minutes from the Asturian's boots.
In the league, in those 13 appearances, he has scored five with 10 shots in 473 minutes: 94 minutes per goal. Only Cesc Fabregas has hit more goals than Villa, six in 1,133 minutes, a rate of 189 minutes per strike.
But Cesc's value to the team lies elsewhere, as his 11 assists show. And both he and Andres Iniesta occupy the left side comfortably, even if Cesc does prefer the middle, making Villa's challenge considerably harder.
In one match for La Roja, against Panama in November, it took Villa less than 30 minutes to find the net from a centre-forward position.
When he signed for Barcelona, shortly before winning the World Cup with Spain in 2010 and finishing as joint top scorer in South Africa, Villa assumed he would be vying for a central role. In the first game of the 2010-11 season, he started in the middle with Messi to his right and Andres Iniesta to the left.
By the end of that season, Messi had been shifted into the middle definitively and Villa, the consummate striker, had been shunted out to a supporting role on the left.
Had Villa chosen the wrong club? Or had the former Valencia striker simply been unlucky to coincide with the discovery that the Argentinean is an even better forward than a winger? Probably a bit of both.
A book released last year called The Messi Mystery claims that Pep Guardiola received a text one day from his prodigy: "I can see I am no longer important to the team, so..."
According to the authors, Messi was not happy about the presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his starring role in some early-season games in 2009-10. Everybody knows who won that battle of wills.
The book (extracts from Goal.com) goes on to claim that Villa was "told in no uncertain terms not to compete with Messi" when he arrived at Camp Nou.
Villa, a slightly more amenable personality, told El País in an interview not only that he was simply happy to be able to say he had played with the four-time Ballon d'Or winner, but also that Messi had made him a better player (Spanish link).
The media of course made quite a meal of an on-field spat between the pair in a match against Granada, which was subsequently played down by the players.
But Villa now doesn't have to challenge Messi alone for a starting place, but Iniesta, Cesc, Tello and Pedro. His figures show that Villa is far from out of form. The same cannot be said for Alexis Sanchez.
It seems unlikely there will be any major comings and goings at Camp Nou in January. Villa, certainly, will be going nowhere. Spain's top scorer of all time will stay and fight for his place.
He should feature for Barcelona at some point against Malaga in the return leg of the King's Cup. Although those two away goals may persuade Vilanova to bring out the big guns from the start this time.
Is Villa still one of those at Barcelona? The next five months will provide the answer.
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