He arrived at Chelsea to murmurs of scepticism after spending two years in the backwaters of Dagestan, but the iconic striker is growing into his role and proving to be an effective acquisition. Adam Bate looks at the remarkable Samuel Eto'o.
By Adam Bate
Last Updated: 14/03/14 5:07pm
There is a well-known Peter Kay comedy routine in which he imagines a life in the future when the next generation wouldn't believe the everyday standards of the modern world. "Your mam, she used to have a dishwasher! You don't remember - look at her face - you don't remember them, do you?"
Well, youngsters. There was an age before the impossible brilliance of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in which one goal every two games was considered the benchmark for a top-class striker. One in two! And in that period before the arrival of the deadly duo, Samuel Eto'o was king. The very best in the business of scoring goals.
Eto'o's record was remarkable. His tally 108 goals in 145 La Liga games for Barcelona established his reputation as a scorer supreme - and as a winner. He won the Pichichi Trophy in 2005/06, also netting the crucial equaliser in a man of the match performance for Barca in that season's Champions League final triumph over Arsenal.
Eto'o was Barcelona's top scorer in four of his five season at the club, capping his time there with a spectacular final campaign in which he netted 36 goals for Pep Guardiola's side, including the opener in a second Champions League final success - this time against Manchester United. Evidently, the goals and glory, it speaks for itself. It's the sacrifice that still resonates.
Xavi called him an "exemplary professional" while former Barca boss Frank Rijkaard praised the player's "great generosity" to Messi as the little genius forged his way in the team. "I hope that Eto'o does not go," said the Argentine himself. "There is no other centre-forward like him in the world." That rarest of beasts then - an unselfish striker who scores goals.
This prioritising of team over self is a recurring theme of Eto'o's career. Whether it is at Barcelona, where he once remarked in reference to Ronaldinho that "we're like a band - he's the star guitarist, I play drums in the back" or later at Internazionale where he famously toiled away on the wing in order to help the team to the Champions League in 2010.
Tellingly, Eto'o was not a striker during his formative years and he believes this is key. "The great forwards have never had my education," he told FourFourTwo back in 2008. "I know what it is to defend because I played several positions which demanded sacrifice for the team. I try never just to be the guy who scores goals. I want to fight up front, in the middle or at the back."
It's that attitude that has bought Eto'o another year in the limelight with Chelsea - the chance to become the first player in history to win the triple crown of Premier League, La Liga and Serie A titles. Of course, there is one man who can already boast that honour. He just happens to be Eto'o's manager at Stamford Bridge.
While the decision to ship out Romelu Lukaku on loan in favour of the ageing Eto'o was not popular in some circles, Jose Mourinho recognises a fellow winner. "My favourite players are the players that win matches for me, not the ones that lose matches for me. Samuel worked with me in the best season of my career. We won everything. So he's in a good position."
It's not been painless and the transition has been tough. "He was for two years playing without big motivations and when you play without big motivations, you train without big motivations and you lose condition, and you lose sharpness, and you lose even appetite," added Mourinho. "It was not a surprise for me that he arrived here not in the best conditions after two years in Anzhi."
Then came Mourinho's ill-advised quip about the Cameroon international's age - "Eto'o is 32, maybe 35" - that supported the accepted wisdom that Chelsea are trying to win this Premier League title without a top-class striker in their midst. But Eto'o has not only responded to that insult with characteristic endeavour, he's also weighed in with seven goals from 14 starts.
Eto'o has other qualities too. For instance, there are signs that the plethora of young attacking midfielders at Chelsea are enjoying playing with him. The pace might not be quite what it was, but Eto'o is an intelligent player, his movement clever and his runs sharp. Creating space for others is a big part of his game now and this is reflected in the performances of Eden Hazard.
The brilliant Belgian has been the star of the Chelsea show this season with his stunning close control and devastating dribbling. With 13 Premier League goals, he is the club's top scorer. But the statistics reveal Hazard has particularly thrived alongside Eto'o. His 1161 minutes alongside the experienced striker have yielded nine of those goals; the 1299 without him have brought just four.
Of course, Eto'o has benefited too, scoring all of his goals with Hazard on the pitch. Between them, they have netted 16 times when together at a rate of 1.24 goals per 90 minutes. It's been crucial in the big games too - one apiece in the win over Liverpool; Eto'o's hat-trick against Manchester United. Against Spurs, Eto'o scored first before winning the penalty for Hazard to double the lead.
There is something of a recent tradition of famous strikers arriving at Stamford Bridge only to be unable to show their best form. Andriy Shevchenko famously failed to enhance his reputation, while George Weah won more friends than on-field plaudits during a brief 15-game stay. But Eto'o could do something neither of those predecessors did and win the Premier League with Chelsea.
Maybe there is even a fourth Champions League success lurking out there. Such an achievement would echo the role that a 34-year-old Henrik Larsson played in Barcelona's 2006 victory. "It was him who gave the team the possibility to play, with his movement, the way he opened up spaces," said Eto'o. "Him coming on in the Champions League final was decisive, he allowed me to excel."
Now Hazard is in the glory role and it is Eto'o cast as the wise old head, charged with opening up those spaces. And if he can coax, cajole and inspire the young Chelsea players behind him to trophy success this season, it would be a quite stunning epilogue to a truly remarkable career.