A gifted striker, naturally

Barcelona averaged 2.75 goals a game before Samuel Eto'o suffered a knee injury in September. The figure dropped to as low as 1.00 over the winter months in the absence of the Cameroon international. But it has risen again to around 2.50 since his return, writes Drew Williams.

If Real Madrid lose out to archrivals Barcelona in this season's thrilling race for the Primera Liga title then they only have themselves to blame. Way back in 1996, a small, shy 15-year-old boy turned up at Madrid airport after signing a deal to play for the Spanish giants. Yet there was a problem — Real forgot he was arriving and failed to send a representative to receive him. The boy was left at the airport for two hours, unable to speak a word of Spanish.

Eleven years later, that same boy is threatening to derail Madrid's hopes of winning their first La Liga crown in four years. And how Samuel Eto'o would love that opportunity.

The agile, pacy striker moved to the Bernabeu as a youngster to realise his dreams of stardom, but he was loaned out to CD Leganes just one year later. After gaining vital experience, Eto'o returned to the Spanish capital hopeful of staking a serious claim in Real's starting XI. However, he managed just three appearances before again being sent out on loan for the start of the 1999-00 season, this time to Real Mallorca.

He enjoyed a solid start to life at the ONO Estadi, but only began to show his true potential during his second season on loan at the club. Eto'o scored 11 times to help Mallorca to a third-place finish in La Liga and prompted them to buy him on a part-ownership basis from Madrid for somewhere in the region of GBP5million.

Another three successful seasons followed in which he became Mallorca's most prolific goal scorer in their league history — 54 goals in 133 games — to convince Barcelona of his obvious ability.

In the summer of 2004 Barca entered into three-way negotiations with Mallorca and Madrid in an attempt to buy the Cameroon international. Amazingly, in another show of either ignorance or naivety, Real president at the time, Florentino Perez, insisted they did not need Eto'o, paving the way for him to join the Catalan revolution alongside the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco.

But Los Galacticos must have gone on to regret that decision with stunning consequences.

In his first season at the Nou Camp, Eto'o scored 24 league goals to help Barca land the La Liga title — four points ahead of second-placed Real. But it was his second term with the Catalan giants that made the rest of Spain really sit up and take notice of the three-time African Footballer of the Year.

Eto'o won the `pichichi' top scorer award, having netted 26 goals as Frank Rijkaard's side retained their league crown. He also scored six goals during their successful UEFA Champions League campaign, including the vital equaliser in the final against Arsenal.

Consequently, he finished third in the FIFA World Player of the Year awards and became only the second African player in the history of the game to finish in the top three.

However, disaster struck earlier this season when he ruptured the meniscus in his right knee during September's UEFA Champions League clash against Werder Bremen. He was subsequently ruled out for five months.

Eto'o missed the entire winter as Barca appeared out of sorts and struggled for form — and more importantly goals.

Yet the 26-year-old returned to action in February and helped Barca win seven out of the 10 games he has started, scoring seven goals. Rijkaard's side were averaging 2.75 goals a game before the striker got injured in September, a figure which dropped to as low as just 1.00 over the winter months. It has risen again to around 2.50 since his return.

There can be no doubt that Eto'o is currently one of the most gifted strikers in the world.

@ PA Sport, 2007, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, re-written, re-distributed or commercially exploited.

Sportstar is not responsible for any inaccuracy in the material.