By Mark Doyle
Blistering pace, wonderful dribbling skills, lethal finishing, injury issues and weight problems - it’s easy to understand why Liverpool target Luis Muriel is known as “the Colombian Ronaldo”.
The Udinese attacker has been burdened with the tag ever since he first came to prominence in his homeland with Deportivo Cali four years ago. Muriel’s natural talent was obvious from the moment he made his professional debut as an 18-year-old and, after just 11 appearances for the Verdiblancos (during which he scored nine goals), he was on his way to Udinese in the summer of 2010.
The Zebrette immediately loaned Muriel to Granada, but he failed to make an impression during his short stint in the Segunda Division. However, the youngster would prove his worth the following year during a tremendously productive loan spell at Lecce, at the end of which he was named Serie A Young Player of the season alongside Stephan El Shaarawy, Muriel’s achievement made all the more noteworthy by the fact that he had been plying his trade in a side that dropped into the relegation zone in week five never to re-emerge.
In that context, seven goals in 29 league appearances was a highly respectable tally for a forward with no previous Serie A experience, as underlined by the reported interest of Juventus, Inter, AC Milan and Roma in signing the striker. Muriel enjoyed the attention of Italy’s elite, publicly expressing his admiration of Milan, the club he had supported as a boy, before then claiming that both the Rossoneri and Inter had made “official offers” for his services.
|LUIS MURIEL'S CAREER STATS
However, Udinese were not about to offload Muriel before he had played a single game at the Friuli and dismissed all offers for the Colombian. Whether that was why the player turned up for pre-season horribly out of shape is open to debate. What remained clear was that Francesco Guidolin was not impressed by the condition he found Muriel in last July.
"If he wants to talk with me, he should lose five pounds," the enraged Zebrette boss told Gazzetta dello Sport. "He not speak with me until he has a physique of an athlete; he must work hard."
Thankfully, Muriel heeded his coach’s warning and was in peak condition in time for the start of the new season. However, then injury intervened, and the striker missed three-and-a-half months with a hairline fracture of his left femur.
Muriel returned seemingly fitter and stronger than ever, though, scoring three goals in his first three starts following his return to action in December and would go on to play a key role in Udinese clinching a Europa League place. Muriel’s strike in the Zebrette’s 5-2 final-day demolition of Inter was his 11th goal in 22 appearances – the best numbers of his career to date.
It is worth noting, though, that only 15 of those appearances were starts, with a number of niggling injuries having hampered Muriel during the second half of the season. Still, his talent and potential are both beyond dispute and, encouragingly, he seems to have matured as a person over the course of the past 12 months.
When his future at the Friuli began to be discussed again in the media towards the tail end of last season, Muriel was at pains to point out just how indebted he feels both Guidolin and strike partner Antonio Di Natale for their guidance and support - on and off the field.
“I have learnt so much here from the boss, who helped me during my moments of difficulty," he told Gazzetta. “The partnership [with Di Natale] has gone so well, too, and 'Toto' has taught me a lot."
And there’s the rub: Muriel still has much to learn. Admittedly, the comparisons with Ronaldo are strikingly obvious. It is not just the bulky build and powerful upper-body strength, Muriel has the same incredible turn of pace and shifts the ball onto his heavily favoured right foot in an eerily similar manner to ‘Il Fenomeno’, as evidenced by the first of his two goals in Colombia’s 4-1 victory over France at the 2011 Fifa Under-20 World Cup. However, unlike Ronaldo, he is not, at 22, the finished article. He has been capped just once by his country, after all.
What he is, though, is a forward of enormous potential. He freely admits that he has to work on his movement and pay greater attention to his defensive duties, but he is undoubtedly capable of adapting to the rigours of the English game on account of his phyisque, impressive hold-up play, incredibly quick feet and fantastic technique.
As Di Natale stated recently, “In a few years Luis will become a great champion.” Signing Muriel now would therefore be a very shrewd move on Liverpool’s part because, just like Ronaldo, when he is in shape, he can be out of this world.