Footballers endure a uniquely perishable and unforgiving shelf-life – and Santi Cazorla is all too aware that time is ticking.
In few occupations, even within the realm of professional sport, would you suddenly find yourself labelled a veteran once you creep past your 30th birthday.
For Cazorla, Arsenal’s squat yet silky playmaker, that landmark will arrive in December this year.
And after a club career that has so far yielded the inglorious sum total of an Intertoto Cup winner’s medal, it is little wonder he is determined to furnish his surpisingly meagre collection of medals.
Even amid a generation of unprecedented Spanish midfield artistry, Cazorla’s ability is clear. It has been enough to earn him 61 international caps and a place in two European Championship-winning squads.
Yet at club level success has eluded him. And as Arsenal’s 2013/14 campaign continues to unravel in all too familiar fashion, he admits the sound of that clock ticking is getting louder and louder.
“I want titles and that is why I came to Arsenal,” he says. “Every football player wants to win titles. We’ve gone many years without winning one. And if not, what I’ll look for in my next destination is to have the chance to win.
“I don’t want to close doors, but nowadays I’ve a contract with Arsenal for two more seasons. When I’m turning 31 I’ll evaluate myself and I’ll choose the best option. In which case, I would be delighted to come back [to Spain].”
The Gunners have endured a torrid couple of months with their European exit at the hands of Bayern Munich compounded by some harrowing drubbings inflicted by their title rivals.
They now find themselves struggling to cling onto fourth place in the Premier League table following a comprehensive 3-0 defeat to fifth-placed Everton at the weekend. It has further reinforced the theory that Arsene Wenger’s side has an inate propensity to implode in high-pressure situations – a notion Cazorla struggles to dismiss.
“We’ve been unlucky in several games. We had a lot of chances to win against Manchester United and there was Ozil’s penalty (against Bayern),” he says. “We couldn’t recover after going out against Bayern in the Champions League.
“And the defeat against Stoke finished us. You can’t lose against Stoke if you aspire to be the next champion.
“We haven’t got a winning mentality and we have to believe in ourselves (more). Sometimes you can get used to not fighting, but we can’t do that. Arsenal is and will always be a historic football club, we have to look forward.”
By that Cazorla means everyone at the Emirates Stadium – particularly the club’s board who he wants to see invest heavily in the summer as they bid to close the gap at the top.
“Arsenal has everything to win,” he adds. “History, infrastructure, an incredible stadium and great players.
“But we have to improve at crucial moments and sign the best football players because if you don’t do that, you may lag behind others.
“That is what makes it different at other clubs. You’ve a good example in Manchester City who signed Fernandiho, (Alvaro) Negredo… or even Manchester United with (Robin) Van Persie and (Juan) Mata.
“Arsenal know what they need next season, but it’s almost impossible to win a title if we haven’t got these kind of things.”
The Gunners have long followed a policy of austerity as they coped with the cost of moving to the Emirates Stadium, yet the first signs of them dipping into the elite end of the transfer market came last summer with the €50million (Dh253.4m) club record capture of Mesut Ozil.
The German burned brightly at the start of his new chapter in London, but has visibly faded as the demands of the season have taken their toll. Cazorla has great sympathy for his team-mate and says the 25-year-old needs to be protected.
“He has come at a difficult time,”the Spaniard explains. “When he arrived in London, he did an extraordinary job and people demanded his best level every match.
“But when he decreased his performance, the team suffered.
“Besides, I read a lot of articles about Ozil in Spain that affected him. We need to give him confidence and to show affection.”
With Arsenal now completely out of the running for the Premier League title, Cazorla admits it will be dificult to predict who emerges victorious.
He feels Liverpool’s lack of continental distractions have helped propel them to the top, while Manchester City have an edge in the form of boss Manuel Pellegrini. Cazorla played for the Chilean at Villarreal and Malaga, and rates him as the best coach he has played for.
“Liverpool are just in one competition and that could be decisive,” he says. “Chelsea are a competitive and effective team and just to score a goal (against them) is very difficult.
“On the other hand, you have Manchester City with the best squad in the Premier League and a great manager.
“I learnt a lot from of all of the managers I have played for, but if I had to choose one it would be Pellegrini.
“He’s the coach that has given me the most during five to six years that I worked with him at Villarreal and Malaga.
“He was the first person who took me to Malaga. We have a great relationship and I congratulate him because he’s doing well. But Manchester has not called me.”
Yet if Cazorla were to seek a fresh challenge, his phone might indeed be quite busy.
CAZORLA ON HIS SPANISH TEAMMATES
Which player would you pick for a night out with?
I would have to say Pepe Reina.
To visit a museum?
A shopping trip?
To go on holiday?
I could pick many of them, but if pushed then David Silva.
To join you at Arsenal?
Andres Iniesta, there’s no player like him.
Real Madrid survived a huge fright to squeeze into the Champions League semi-finals with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Borussia Dortmund, who were deserved 2-0 winners on the night.
After an early penalty miss by Angel Di Maria, Marco Reus was the inspiration for the home team, scoring twice and tormenting the over-worked Madrid defence all night.
Chances came for Dortmund to send the tie to extra time, but Henrikh Mkhitaryan was guilty of poor finishing while Iker Casillas made the saves to send his team through and keep their ‘Decima’ dreams alive.
There was little sign of the explosive night to come as Madrid eased their way through the opening stages, with Dortmund doing nothing to suggest they would be capable of getting back into the tie.
Indeed, the visiting team squandered a golden chance to wrap up the encounter when referee Damir Skomina awarded a penalty after Fabio Coentrao’s cross struck Lukasz Piszczek on the arm, even though the contact appeared to have taken place outside the area.
But incessant rain had made the pitch very wet, and penalty taker Di Maria slipped as he prepared to strike the spot-kick, consequently deflecting the ball off his own standing foot and taking the pace off his effort, allowing Roman Weidenfeller to save to his left.
Dortmund should have made Madrid pay almost instantly, as Robert Lewandowski did well to keep the ball in play on the byline, Reus danced into space and slid a perfect pass into the stride of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but the Armenian forward side-footed his shot badly wide from six yards.
Any thoughts that Madrid had been reprieved were short-lived, however, as Dortmund took the lead thanks to a terrible mistake from Pepe, whose attempted back header left Casillas stranded and allowed the electric Reus to round the advancing keeper before slotting home.
Casillas came to his team’s rescue when Mats Hummels powered a header towards goal from a Reus free-kick, but the reprieve was only temporary as Madrid once again authored their own downfall when an awful pass from Asier Illarramendi gifted possession to Reus.
He ran towards goal before finding Lewandowski, and although Casillas tipped his shot onto the post the rebound fell straight to Reus for an emphatic close-range finish.
The otherwise disappointing Gareth Bale forced a save from Weidenfeller early in the second half before cutting inside from the right wing to skid a low cross just beyond the reach of Karim Benzema at the far post, but Dortmund then took over for a sensational passage of play.
Needing one more goal to force extra time, the German team came agonisingly close on three occasions in the space of six minutes, with Mkhitaryan guilty of wasteful finishing on each occasion.
Firstly he was picked out by Reus and rounded Casillas but could only hit the post with the goal wide open in front, and then he twice sent low shots too close to the Madrid goalkeeper, who deserves credit for making good saves but probably shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to do so in the first place.
The final stages were utterly frantic as an increasingly exhausted Dortmund threw everything they had at the visitors in search of an equaliser, while Madrid grew increasingly dangerous on the counter-attack.
Benzema forced a good save from Weidenfeller and Bale failed to make the most of two promising one on one situations, allowing Dortmund to keep believing until the last minute.
But their final chance disappeared when Hummels took an airshot as the ball dropped his way at the far post, and Madrid held on to progress into the last four by the skin of their teeth.
MAN OF THE MATCH- Marco Reus
It was a truly spectacular performance from Reus, who scored both Dortmund goals and created several chances for his teammates with brilliant approach play. Madrid just couldn’t live with his pace, touch and direct play.
Chelsea and Jose Mourinho dare to dream of European glory once more after overturning a two-goal deficit to advance to the Champions League semi-finals at the expense of Paris Saint-Germain.
Mourinho raced down the touchline in celebration of substitute Demba Ba’s 87th-minute goal, which secured the 2012 winners a 2-0 win and a place in the last four for a seventh time in 11 years courtesy of Eden Hazard’s away goal in the first leg.
It was a scene reminiscent of Mourinho’s sprint at Old Trafford en route to his first European Cup success with Porto in 2004.
The trophy eluded the Portuguese during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, but he won it again in 2010 with Inter Milan and has another shot at glory four years on. Chelsea trailed 3-1 after the first leg, but were unbeaten since September at home and had kept eight successive clean sheets prior to the match.
Mourinho believed in his side and, when Andre Schurrle swept in after 32 minutes, the Blues needed one more goal and to stretch that defensive mean-streak by one more game.
Against a PSG strikeforce vaunted even without the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic that was no easy task, but the defence held their side of the bargain as the attackers tried to fulfil theirs.
Mourinho had gambled on the fitness of big-game player Samuel Eto‘o, but was not banking on losing Hazard to injury after 18 minutes. Schurrle, the Belgian’s replacement, was anonymous in a ‘false nine’ role in the first leg, but thrived in the second, hitting the bar seven minutes into the second half.
Oscar struck the frame of the goal with a free-kick moments later and PSG had chances as Chelsea surged forward looking for the decisive goal.
It looked like it would prove elusive until Cesar Azpilicueta’s drive into the area fell for Ba to turn the ball into the net and spark delirious celebrations, led by Mourinho. Few Chelsea players seemed to enjoy a pulsating and disjointed opening.
The left wing is usually lively as it is Hazard’s domain, but much to the concern of the home faithful, the Belgian was subdued and soon limped off. The Blues had set-piece opportunities.
A Frank Lampard free-kick kicked up wickedly off the wall, forcing Salvatore Sirigu to turn the ball round the post. But he was beaten soon afterwards as his static defence watched David Luiz flick on Branislav Ivanovic’s long throw for Schurrle to sweep the ball into the bottom corner. Schurrle appealed in vain for a penalty moments later when he collided with Marco Verratti.
Chelsea maintained the intensity after the restart and went close when Oscar’s incisive pass found Willian. He pulled the ball back for Schurrle to strike a fierce drive which rebounded off the crossbar.
Lucas Moura fouled Eto’o on the left edge of the box for a free-kick in a dangerous position and Oscar’s curling strike also hit the woodwork. Ivanovic was adjudged to have fouled Blaise Matuidi on the left edge of the Chelsea box, earning a booking which rules him out of their next European match.
Lavezzi’s inswinging free-kick was clawed round the post by Petr Cech. Ba replaced Lampard with 24 minutes to go and flicked on for Schurrle, who shot straight at Sirigu. As Chelsea poured forwards, PSG had chances.
The best fell for Cavani, who fired over after controlling Yohan Cabaye’s 50-yard pass. Still searching a second, the much-maligned Fernando Torres was thrown into the fray, but it was Ba who emerged the unlikely hero.
MAN OF THE MATCH – Andre Schurrle
An injury to Eden Hazard may have seemed like a hammer blow for the Blues but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The brilliant German came on in the 18th minute and ran PSG ragged. He galvanised the hosts with the opening goal before rattling the bar with a magnificent strike.
Love him or loathe him, Jose Mourinho knows how to get the job done over two legs as his record of having never lost a Champions League quarter-final will testify.
There was nothing revolutionary about his changes, but when two substitutes get your goals the manager has earned his money. In contrast PSG were poor and Laurent Blanc’s gameplan negative. The French champions had Chelsea on the rack but came to defend and were punished.