Soldado revives his fortunes

Valencia's Roberto Soldado controls the ball during a La Liga match against Barcelona at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain.-AP

Approaching the prime of his career, it really is a case of now or never for the late-blossoming Spaniard, writes Jamie Strickland.

Some footballers explode onto the world stage at a tender age, others take time to leave their mark on the game.

In the case of Valencia striker Roberto Soldado, both statements have a ring of truth.

After a bright start to his career, Soldado's star went on the wane during several frustrating seasons with Real Madrid before he rebuilt his reputation with mid-ranking Spanish Primera Division outfits Osasuna and Getafe. He is now clawing his way back to the summit of Spanish football after joining Valencia over the summer, a move that finally established Soldado as one of the prominent Spanish frontmen in La Liga.

Two goals in Los Che's 3-0 UEFA Champions League victory over Rangers was a timely reminder of the 25-year-old's talents, which have often been overlooked amid the glut of attacking stars in the Spanish game.

A product of the Madrid youth programme, Soldado was prolific as he rose through the ranks at the Bernabeu and was tipped to emerge as a major star for Los Merengues.

The Valencia native began promisingly in the Madrid first team, marking his European debut with the winner against Olympiacos in a group stage match in September 2005. But he managed just one more goal in his breakthrough season as forecasts of a glittering career at the capital club were quickly found to be wide of the mark.

At just 20 years of age, the fledging Soldado was always likely to find it tough to earn a regular berth in the starting XI, with Brazilian trio Ronaldo, Robinho and Julio Baptista, not to mention club legend Raul, ahead of him in the pecking order.

As a fringe player at best and with his first-team appearances in La Liga standing at just 11, Soldado became the first victim of the rebuilding programme undertaken by Fabio Capello in 2006 following three seasons without silverware.

A season-long loan spell at Osasuna removed Soldado from the all-pervading pressures at Real, and he thrived away from the spotlight, scoring 14 goals in all competitions for the Pamplona club.

Madrid responded by offering him a new contract, but it was to prove a false dawn with Soldado managing just five appearances in the 2007/08 campaign before his Bernabeu frustration was ended with a four million euro switch to Getafe in July 2008.

While a setback at the time, when Soldado calls time on his career years down the line he may point to his move to Madrid's cross-town rival as the moment it all started to come good.

His time at Getafe was a roaring success, delivering 29 goals in 60 league appearances and ensuring his team qualified for the Europa League at the end of last season.

Confirmation of his emerging reputation as a top-class performer came when Valencia bought him as the replacement for David Villa, the European and world champion with Spain who moved to Barcelona in May for 40 million euros.

Los Che's swoop for Soldado cost the club just a quarter of the fee they received for Villa, but the pressure was nevertheless firmly on the prodigal son as he moved to his hometown club aiming to plug the gap left by the departure of one of the world's best players.

His time at the Mestalla has started modestly enough with five goals in all competitions — three of those coming in the Champions League — but better will be expected in the coming months if Valencia's fans are to accept him as the long-term solution to Villa's exit.

Approaching the prime of his career, it really is a case of now or never for the late-blossoming Soldado.

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