COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Cedric Bakambu is holding his own just fine as far as La Liga scoring goes so far this season. The Democratic Republic of Congo international has hit eight in eight, the sort of average one might expect from the 'extraterrestrials' (not to be bested, Lionel Messi has himself hit 10, maintaining his primacy as a superior life form), and a total which accounts for just over half of Villarreal's league total.
It would not be a stretch to consider him Africa's hottest striker just now, aside the consistently prolific Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. However, while the Panther is regularly denoted top of the food chain on the continent, there is only minimal acclaim for Bakambu.
Of course, it must be acknowledged just how consistent the quicksilver Aubameyang has been in Germany since joining Borussia Dortmund. Bakambu is no slouch either though. Since joining the Yellow Submarine, he has found the back of the net at an impressive clip, hitting 42 in 95 appearances in all competitions.
Considering how badly he underwhelmed at Sochaux, from whose ranks he rose, there can have been little indication he had the chops for the big time. Indeed, it was while in the Turkish Super Lig — hardly considered a springboard — that he began to look the part with Bursaspor; 13 in 27 piqued the interest of Villarreal.
The rest has been (largely pleasant) history, as well as present, barring a lull in his second season in part due to a hamstring injury.
So impressive has he been, that he was the subject of significant interest in the summer from West Ham United and Newcastle United; it is at once clear how suitable he would be to the Premier League, and it would be a surprise if a bigger side looking for a striker did not have a look.
It is not difficult to divine why.
Bakambu is a genuinely difficult striker to come up against; whereas, to compare with two of his African contemporaries, Leicester's Islam Slimani is a towering aerial target, and the aforementioned Aubameyang is reliant on his pace, the 26-year-old is quite complete in terms of his skillset.
Quite distinct from a simple poacher or a huge battering ram, Cedric can certainly entertain. His ability to beat a man, both with quick feet (he strikes very well even on his 'weaker' left) or with a drop of the shoulder, as well as the prospect of simply running in behind, means defenders have to gauge their approach carefully.
Stand off, and he will drop deep and run at you; stick tight, and he will spin off. Catch-22.
With such range, his lack of consideration on the continent is startling. Perhaps some of that is a legacy of playing at an unfashionable side. Their colours are brilliant enough, as is the tight little Madrigal, but Villarreal have become something of a bore simply for their stability.
Movement (of any kind) attracts attention; the best way to be invisible is to be still. With Villarreal's constant 5/6th place finishes and token runs in the Europa League, never threatening to upset the established order, there is little to draw the eye. He would do well to heed this aphorism himself, having signed a new long-term contract.
There is another factor, one which is more an effect than a cause, but is perhaps not considered in that manner. The sense lingers that he does not produce his best for the DR Congo national side, and is exacerbated by the fact he represented France up until Under-20 level, only switching allegiance in 2015.
This same allegation of not trying hard enough, of phoning it in with the national team, is one that two of Africa's finest footballers of the last five years can relate to. Yaya Toure, even at the height of his powers at Manchester City, failed to inspire the sort of talismanic adoration that Didier Drogba enjoyed as captain of Ivory Coast; while Aubameyang has had to endure the same, his performances for Gabon seeming to get worse as his club profile has got bigger.
It can help to smooth things over if you score by the bucketload in Europe, as Aubameyang has and does, or when you so utterly dominate a major European league, like Toure did. It doesn't altogether extinguish the criticism, of course.
Some of his underperformance is perhaps to do with the fact that Florent Ibenge, coach of the Leopards, does not quite trust him, and it is notable that while he has scored twice in World Cup qualifying, Bakambu has struggled to consistently influence proceedings.
The stop-start nature of his involvement so far has evidently robbed him of much-needed gelling time.
Then again, perhaps the blame must simply be laid at the feet of the player himself, who can manifest a streakiness to his game. His goals tend to come in gluts, after which an intermission follows: as an example, even in his prolific first year in Spain, he went through a lean spell in the second half of the season — nine games in a span of two months.
Perhaps this early surge from Bakambu will prove the spark for a true, season-long cavalcade of brilliance. If he can muster that level of consistency, he might finally come to be reckoned with as one of Africa's striking elite.