Over the last few seasons at Sevilla, two international centre forwards have been grabbing all the headlines: Brazilian Luis Fabiano and Malian Frederic Kanoute. This year, however, two of their team-mates are giving the pair a run for their money. Striker Alvaro Negredo and winger Jesus Navas are increasingly becoming key figures in a Sevilla side hoping to prove that La Liga is not just a two-horse race between Barça and Real Madrid.
Negredo's rise has been nothing if not meteoric. Just four years ago, the 24-year-old joined Los Merengues' reserve team, Real Madrid Castilla, from third-tier side Rayo Vallecano. In his second year at the Real Madrid affiliate, Negredo scored 18 goals and began to attract the attention of several Primera Liga clubs, despite a poor overall campaign which saw his club relegated to the third division. He signed for Almeria and notched up 32 goals in two seasons, after which Real Madrid exercised their buyback option and brought him to the Bernabeu.
But with Ruud van Nistelrooij’s return to fitness, Raul’s fine form and the signings of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, regular first-team football was not on the cards, so Negredo decided to pack his bags yet again, this time for Sevilla. And once more, Madrid made sure that a buyback option was part of the transfer conditions.
"I must thank the club for securing his signature as he was the specific player we'd requested," his new coach, Manolo Jimenez, admitted. "It’s obvious he’s been coached very well from a young age. He’s a terrific lad with a good character and he gets on very well with the rest of the team." This Madrid native is not your typical starlet, however, but rather a tireless workhorse with a clinical finish and a talent for finding space and instigating intelligent play.
As he was settling into his new club, for which he has already scored two goals, Negredo was surprised to receive an international call-up from Spain for their final two qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. He won his first cap as a substitute for Fernando Torres against Armenia, and then started against Bosnia-Herzegovina, putting in a such a sparkling performance that neither David Villa nor Fernando Torres were even missed.
Despite his two goals and two assists in Spain's 5-2 win in Sarajevo, the forward remained humble in his post-match interview: "Playing for Spain is incredible, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I think I can be happy with two goals and two assists."
This barnstorming international debut put Negredo centre-stage once more, and many now feel Madrid will once again avail of their buyback option at the end of the season. "Maybe they’ll want a swap: Benzema for Negredo," joked Jimenez at his pre-match interview for Sevilla’s UEFA Champions League match in Stuttgart on Tuesday.
Playing for Spain is my ultimate ambition. I’m getting closer to it, but I have to continue to develop as a player and keep a level head.
Unfortunately, Negredo will miss the encounter due to illness, but another of Sevilla’s young gems will be taking part: Jesus Navas, a home-grown player of whom big things are expected this season.
Opposing teams will need some accomplished left-backs in their ranks against Sevilla, as Navas is lethal in his forays up the right wing. And despite a youthful appearance which belies a rasping shot and an innate ability to jink past opponents, the winger will turn 24 on 21 November. His recent stellar performance against Real Madrid, in which he tormented left-back Marcelo throughout, once again led to calls for his inclusion in the national team squad.
His lack of international caps is no reflection on his ability, however. He was in constant demand at all underage levels, and Luis Aragones even wanted him in his team for UEFA EURO 2008, only to eventually decide against it due to Navas’ publicised anxiety problems. For the past three years, he has unquestionably been one of the best wingers in Spain, and with his crafty jinks and blistering pace, it is no longer a question of if Navas will break into the national side, but when.
This artful Andalusian was unequivocal when asked about this possbility in the wake of his heroic display against Madrid a fortnight ago, saying: "Playing for Spain is my ultimate ambition. I’m getting closer to it, but I have to continue to develop as a player and keep a level head. I don’t want to rush things. To play in a World Cup would be amazing."
The future looks bright indeed for the talented duo, with fans of Sevilla and La Roja entitled to be excited.