Nabil El Zhar can be regarded as something of a lucky charm by the Liverpool faithful. He gained his reputation after a succession of substitute appearances last season coincided with some notable late revivals from Rafael Benitez’s side.
Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Standard Liege and Wigan Athletic were all only beaten once El Zhar was thrown on from the bench to add the element of surprise to the Liverpool attack.
Furthermore, he almost snatched all three points with a header against Arsenal that flashed narrowly wide of the target.
Despite being born in France, El Zhar chose to play for Morocco, the birth country of his parents. He first sprung to prominence in the 2005 World Youth Championships when he helped Morroco reach the semi-finals before they lost to Brazil. He feels it is an honour to play for the national team. “I love it,” says Nabil with a broad smile.
He cites former Coventry and Aston Villa player Mustapha Hadji as his inspiration. “I spoke to him recently in Marrakech and he is a good guy," he continues.
"I admire Hajdi because he was a great player and did very well when he played in England. I wanted to be like him and as young player who wanted to make the grade I looked up to him and should devoted all my efforts to the game and got my chance. But Liverpool have been very fair to me.”
While El Zhar believes Benitez’s side have shown they have the quality and determination to remain ahead of the pack, he accepts the Anfield outfit must stop dropping points in games that, on paper, they should be winning.
“Liverpool are a top team, and we all know that we have to work hard,” he says. “The whole squad knows that they have to be playing well and working hard to get into the team and stay there.
“By beating United and Chelsea in, and the draw at Arsenal, we’ve shown that we can do well against the other top teams. But we’re going to have to start winning more games against smaller teams if we want to remain contenders for the title."
The talented and speedy prospect signed a contract at Anfield in 2006 after he rejected the chance to to remain with French side St. Etienne. He announced his arrival on the Anfield stage a year later when he scored a stunning 25-yarder in front of the Kop end on his full debut in the Carling Cup win over Cardiff City.
Despite the vote of confidence from Benitez, Nabil's ambition is to become the first French/Morrocan to play for Liverpool and Morroco on a regular basis. And the winger, hopeful of being involved in many more games down the line, feels he now belongs in the senior squad.
"I have to work hard and inshallah (God willing) improve and prove my worth and play my part for the first team.
“I feel as though I am more at home at the club now. I’ve been gaining more confidence by coming on more, and now I just have to keep on going, work hard and try and play many more games. You have to forget about the big names you are playing with and try to show people what you can do. I have to keep at this level. The manager has said to me that he wanted to give me more chances in the first-team. He told me that I had to work hard and listen to advice and take my opportunities when they come.
“As I have said, I also love playing for Morroco and want to make a big impact. I have a lot of work to do and keep my feet on the ground but it was great to score in front of the Kop and now I am living the dream."
Casting his mind back to his childhood, Nabil speaks about his upbringing. Born in the city of Nimes in the south of France, Nabil, along with 15-year-old brother Karim, was brought up by parents Kasem, an agricultural worker, and Amina, who works in a denim clothing factory. Fiercely proud of his roots, Nabil explains the word denim is derived from the French serge de Nimes - a type of fabric from Nabil’s home city which traces back to France prior to the 17th century.
Nabil feels he owes what he has become today to the efforts of his parents. “Although I couldn’t afford to buy a football shirt when I was young, we were from a good normal area,” he explains. “I always wanted to be a professional footballer that was all. I left home (with his parents’ approval) to play in St Etienne when I was 17. I was on my own as a young boy. I was told to be careful and look after myself by my parents. I try to spend as much time as I can with my family and friends.”
When asked about the Bill Shankly and Bob Paisely era to present day Liverpool Football Club, Nabil insists he is aware of the tradition and the glittering history of the club. He cites Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley as the men who inspired people from various backgrounds to support Liverpool.
“I’ve read about all the history of Liverpool Football Club in France, and what they’ve won, and how a bigger name it is in world football," says Nabil. "It's a well known club throughout many communities. Outside of the French clubs a lot of people from many backgrounds support Liverpool more than other English teams because of what Shankly and Paisley achieved. They inspired many people to support Liverpool. Also, there are a lot of French players who have played in England and developed into a big name. The club has many supporters back in Morocco and throughout the whole of Africa."
When asked about the lack of British Asian players plying their trade in the domestic game, Nabil sits back and explains why he believes Asians will one day make their mark in the professional game.
"My parents were very supportive of me and I know of many people in France who were very good football players but did not get the chance to make it," he adds.
"Fortunately, I was lucky enough to sign for Liverpool and Liverpool seems to be a very supportive and kind club, everyone has been very nice to me here and given me a fair chance."
Nicknamed 'El Zhario' and 'Zaroualinho' Nabil could be a superstar in waiting, only time will tell. But one thing for sure, he has a slight touch of Kevin Keegan about him; he is humble, quick, determined and willing to learn. Hungry for success and with people like Steven Gerrard watching his back, there could be good times ahead if he really makes his mark next season.
El Zahr will be patiently waiting to force his way into Rafael Benitez's Anfield plans and is determined to make a more substantial contribution to Liverpool’s Premier League challenge.
No wonder some Liverpool supporters feel that the 22-year-old could just be the Reds' lucky charm as they look to end the drought and win the Premier League for the first time in its history.
Mohammed Bhana, Goal.com