By Ben Hayward
Jose Enrique appears ready for the big time. Cast adrift by coaches early on his career, forced to ply his trade in the lower divisions and then work his way up, the road to the top has been long and at times arduous for Liverpool's prospective new left-back, but the move to Merseyside may be just the tonic he needs to take that final step and claim the coveted left-back position for his country.
Now 25, the Valencia-born defender began his career at Levante B in Spain's Third Division. Opportunities were few and far between, however, until one day, the player confronted his coach. The reply from boss Jose Luis Oltra was simple: when the left-back is sent off, you will get your chance. That happened the following Sunday and it represented the start of something special for the promising player.
After 19 appearances and one goal for Levante, Jose Enrique was snapped up city rivals Valencia, although the youngster endured a prickly relationship with coach Quique Sanchez Flores and failed to make a single appearance at Mestalla.
A bright future | Jose Enrique came to prominence at Villarreal
Loaned to Celta Vigo, the left-back was unable to displace former Argentina defender Diego Placente, but still made 14 league appearances and received rave reviews in Galicia, where Joan Capdevila was turning in solid performances week after week at regional rivals Deportivo La Coruna.
Jose Enrique went off to Villarreal and was joined at El Madrigal by Capdevila for a brief period in the summer of 2007. Capdevila had failed to reach agreement with Deportivo and was snapped up by Villarreal on a free transfer. Jose Enrique had enjoyed a fine debut season at the club, though, and many fans were briefly bewildered at the need for two such quality left-backs.
Jose Enrique was soon made available, however, and Newcastle beat Liverpool and Manchester City in the race for his signature. "A big offer came in for me," the player explained last year in an interview. "They paid just over €9 million for me, which was a million more than Chelsea had paid for Asier del Horno."
Del Horno, signed by Jose Mourinho after coming through the youth ranks and impressing at Athletic Bilbao, was seen as Spain's left-back of the future, but the Basque has since slipped down the footballing ladder and is now at Levante, where Jose Enrique started out.
|SPAIN'S LEFT-BACKS | Jose Enrique's rivals for La Roja
While Del Horno has fallen into decline, however, Capdevila has gone from strength to strength. The Catalan defender has just joined Benfica following four superb seasons at Villarreal, which also saw him start as Spain's left-back in both Euro 2008 and last summer's World Cup win in South Africa.
Capdevila was Spain's only recognised left-back in South Africa, with Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa providing cover for both full-back positions. Left-backs, in fact, are a precious commodity in Spain these days. "I'm lucky to play as a left-back because there are a lack of players in that position," Jose Enrique claimed. "Both Madrid and Barca, for example, have foreigners there: Marcelo and Abidal."
Whilst Newcastle's relegation to the Championship in 2009 may have hit Jose Enrique's international hopes, the player credited the experience has having 'toughened me up as a player' and he was one of the Magpies' star performers as they immediately sealed promotion back to the Premier League.
Barcelona tracked Jose Enrique at Newcastle last season and coach Pep Guardiola weighed up a bid for the left-back after Abidal's health scare last season. With neither Maxwell nor Adriano completely convincing at Camp Nou, Jose Enrique's defensive solidity and marauding runs from deep caught the eye of the Catalans, although the club were keen to bring in a cheaper alternative in the end. Likewise Villarreal, who promoted Jose Catala to their first team last term but also considered an offer for their former left-back to replace Capdevila.
And sooner rather than later, Capdevila will need to be replaced in the national side as well. The Catalan defender will be 34 in February and Jose Enrique is keen to push his former team-mate for a place in the national side. "Capdevila is a world champion and an extraordinary player. He's the boss," the 25-year-old affirmed. "But I am looking for a little slot there as well."
“Capdevila is a world champion and an extraordinary player. He's the boss. But I am looking for a little slot in the national team as well.”
- Jose Enrique
Liverpool could be the ideal place for Jose Enrique to achieve that goal. Although not featuring in Europe next season, the Reds remain a high-profile club and still count on a large following in Spain, having been affectionately nicknamed 'Spanish Liverpool' during the reign of Rafa Benitez.
At Liverpool he would be expected to fill what has been a problem position for some years. Since John Arne Riise departed in 2008, the Reds have struggled to settle on a left back, with Emiliano Insua, Andrea Dossena and the injury-prone Fabio Aurelio all coming in and out of the side.
Espanyol's young left-back Didac Vila is another promising prospect, having starred for Spain in the Under-21 European Championship victory earlier this summer, although the defender struggled in the second half of last season following a move to AC Milan, still his parent club.
Malaga's Nacho Monreal is another alternative for Vicente del Bosque, although he endured a nightmare in last summer's 4-1 defeat against Argentina. Recent Roma recruit and one-time Barca target is a further option, but he was behind Didac in Denmark for the Under-21 side in June.
Arbeloa is a steady stand-in, too, while Sevilla's Fernando Navarro offers experience, but none would appear as well-placed to replace Capdevila as Jose Enrique, as Spain look towards Euro 2012. Del Bosque and his team have already assessed the likely Liverpool signing and with caps at Under-16, Under-20 and Under-21 level, he now looks set to take the familiar trip along Anfield Road, all the way to the Spanish national side. It has been a long journey.
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