Santi Cazorla: Arsenal's Spanish king still waiting for his Emirates farewell

Santi Cazorla Villarreal Arsenal GFX
The former Gunners star was given the send-off he deserved by Villarreal on Sunday, but he has yet to be able to say his goodbyes in north London

It was the Villarreal send off Santi Cazorla deserved - but one that made his Arsenal exit even tougher to take.

When the 35-year-old left the pitch after 82 minutes of Sunday’s 4-0 victory against Eibar, the small number of people inside El Madrigal rose to their feet and applauded him off.

It was the last of his 328 appearances for the Yellow Submarine, earned over two different spells at the club, with Cazorla having now agreed a move to Qatar, where he will link up with compatriot Xavi at Al-Sadd .

The mercurial Spaniard was given a guard of honour from both sides at full-time before being hoisted up by his team-mates and thrown into the air.

It was a goodbye that was full of meaning and one the touched the hearts of everyone who saw it.

"I'm eternally grateful to this club and the fans for having opened the doors to me and for all the love they've shown me for so long," an emotional Cazorla said after the game.

"I've had a great time, but it's time to end this stage of my career. It's a decision I've thought about a lot. Every game I find it harder to give 100 per cent and I had to be honest with myself and the club.”

Cazorla, one of the most popular footballers around, leaves Villarreal a hero, just as he did Arsenal.

But there was no big goodbye at the Emirates, no emotional send off. Cazorla left in the summer of 2018 having not made an appearance for the Gunners since a 6-0 win against Ludogorets in October, 2016.

One of the finest players of his generation, one of the best Arsenal players of the Emirates era, Cazorla deserved so much more.

“Not being able to say goodbye playing at the Emirates is like a thorn in my side,” Cazorla told the Guardian soon after he had completed his move back to Spain. “If I had to leave, I wanted it to be in front of the fans.”

Cruelly for Cazorla, an injury described as the worst he had ever seen by Arsene Wenger robbed him of that possibility. It all started with a knock picked up playing for Spain against Chile. He cracked a bone in his ankle, but played on through the pain until November 2015, when - after playing against Ludogorets in the Champions League - it all got too much.

“That night, I cried, Cazorla said. “I had to stop. Then the problems started.”

Initially, Wenger made light of the injury, saying that Cazorla would be back available relatively quickly. But the Frenchman had no idea what was to come.

Over the next 18 months, Cazorla would go on to have 10 operations while an infection ate away 10 centimetres of tendon in the ankle, putting his leg at risk of amputation.

Santi Cazorla Arsenal

The midfielder was told by doctors not to even worry about football anymore and rather focus his energy on trying to regain a ‘normal life’ and being able to play in his garden with his son.

Wenger took up an option in Cazorla’s contract to keep him for a further year, just to give the player some of peace of mind while he worked on his rehabilitation - but he would never play for Arsenal again.

He left at the end of the 2017-18 season having made 180 appearances for the Gunners, scoring 29 goals and winning two FA Cups. Had his injury issues not blighted his final years in north London, many inside the club believe the league title could have been won, such was his quality and influence.

Cazorla left behind so many memories at Arsenal. The midfield masterclass in the 2-0 win at Manchester City in January 2015, the free-kick in the FA Cup final against Hull City in 2014, the ability to play so well with either foot. But more than anything else, his smile.

Santi Cazorla Mikel Arteta

He was an infectious character, one who was as popular in the changing room as he was in the stands.

"My opinion of Santi cannot be any higher," said Mikel Arteta, when asked about his former team-mate ahead of Arsenal’s game at Aston Villa on Tuesday.

”Personally, first, with the type of person he is and what he brings to that dressing room, but then also as a player for what he did throughout his career.”

The fact Cazorla did not get a send off after his six-year stay with Arsenal remains a sore point in north London. The fans are desperate to give him a proper goodbye and the club also want to mark his service. Goal has learned that there were plans pencilled in for a return this summer at the Emirates Cup, only for the coronavirus pandemic to put paid to that idea.

Whether it can happen now remains to be seen, but even if it does not, Cazorla’s place in Arsenal’s history is safe - his free-kick at Wembley in 2014 assured him of that.

And there is still the chance that he could make his return in the dugout, rather on the pitch, once he decides to finally call time on his playing career.

"About the coaching role, we will see what happens,” said Arteta. "Right now, he's just finished [at Villarreal] so let him enjoy that moment and we'll see what happens in the future."

Judging by the smile we saw on Cazorla's face on Sunday, he did enjoy his moment. Hopefully there is another to come at Arsenal some point down the line.