Without the imposing physique or rugged qualities of a traditional No9, opposing defenders run the risk of underestimating Villarreal striker Nilmar. That risk increases further when you consider the Brazil international does not enjoy the high profile of more experienced countrymen such as Luis Fabiano and Adriano, or the ‘rising star’ status of up-and-comers like Neymar and Leandro Damiao.
Yet anyone underrating Nilmar does so at their peril, with the player able to pierce defences in any number of ways. Thriving on freedom to roam in the attacking third, the 26-year-old’s rare combination of speed, intelligence, skill and finishing ability have been very much in evidence this season, his second in the colours of La Liga’s Submarino Amarillo.
“In Brazil, and even here at Villarreal, I’ve had experience of being used as a target man," Nilmar told FIFA.com. "This season I could have chosen the No9 shirt but I wanted No7 instead, so I wouldn’t be perceived as a typical centre-forward. You have to be more mobile in the modern game. If you don’t move you might not even get to touch the ball.”
A product of the youth system at Porto Alegre outfit Internacional, where he first made his name, Nilmar is clearly enjoying his time at Villarreal, particularly since the changes to the team’s playing style brought in by coach Juan Carlos Garrido following his February 2010 appointment. “This season has been totally different to my first campaign in Spain," he explained. "The team wasn’t doing well. It was tough and we didn’t gel.
"But the coach’s appointment has suited my style of play. We’ve been playing the ball through midfield more, using our quality players, rather than just attacking down the flanks. I’d play in defence if the team needed me too, but the coach knows how I like to play and the team’s set up to get the best out of me and [Giuseppe] Rossi. We’re at our strongest with the ball on the floor, using me and the Italian.”
Indeed, the Nilmar-Rossi double act has already contributed 26 goals in La Liga and 11 in the UEFA Europa League in 2010/11, with the 24-year-old Azzurri sharpshooter enjoying the most prolific period of his career. Nor is it the first successful strike partnership Nilmar has had, with Corinthians fans still harbouring fond memories of the one he shared with Carlos Tevez, which inspired them to Campeonato Brasileiro glory in 2005.
“I try to adapt, whoever it is I’m playing alongside,” said Nilmar. “The partnership with Tevez clicked very quickly and was the best I’ve been part of, as far as short-term results are concerned. Now, in our second season together, Rossi and I are doing well too. Us [strikers] depend a lot on the team, and now we’ve got players who can get the ball to us, such as Borja Valero. It’s fair to say that our strike partnership is now virtually as good as the one I had with Tevez.”
Continuing on the same theme, the former Lyon man has nothing but praise for Rossi. “It’s easy to play alongside someone of his quality. He’s left-footed, has great technique and controls the ball really well. He’s having an excellent season. He’s a great guy off the pitch too, and that’s important as we all get on really well.”
Now firmly at the sharp end of the season, Nilmar’s depth of understanding with Rossi could prove vital to Villarreal’s hopes for the remainder of the campaign. With nine rounds remaining, El Submarino Amarillo are currently third in La Liga, behind the runaway pair of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and face reigning Dutch champions Twente in the last eight of the Europa League.
“In principle, our main objective is to finish in the Champions League qualifying places (La Liga’s top four), which is important financially. We’re currently in third, level on points with Valencia, and in with a great chance of achieving that goal. There’s also the Europa League, which has become a priority too.”
Progress in continental competition has come as something of a surprise to Nilmar, given Villarreal’s relatively small squad size. “When we get a run of injuries we have to call up B-team players, so we thought we might struggle in the Europa League,” he said.
“But now we’re in with a shot at the title, which would go down in club history. So I’d prefer us to keep going like this, playing in two competitions, which gives you more match time and more confidence. It’s better than spending your whole week focusing on just one objective.”