Pablo Piatti back from the shadows after enjoying Valencia renaissance

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Pablo Piatti has gone from hero to zero and back again already, and the Valencia winger is only 25!

2014 was a great year for Valencia’s Pablo Piatti, the man once expected by some, both in Argentina and Spain, to become the new Lionel Messi. He started it with a goal in a 2-0 derby win over Valencia and rounded it off with a superb assist to help his team to a 1-0 triumph at Eibar. It was the year when his career was finally back on track, and that is no small feat for someone who was discarded after failing to live up to the hype.

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It is easy to understand why Piatti got people so excited. Less than two years younger than Messi, he burst onto the scene in a spectacular fashion in 2006 at Estudiantes, under Diego Simeone – a manager never afraid to give chances to teenagers. At the tender age of 17, the tiny striker who measures just 163 centimeters (5ft 4in), was given his debut in a crucial league fixture versus Newell’s Old Boys and scored an injury time winner with his head, making Cholo dance on the touchline.

This was such a phenomenal moment that all eyes were immediately on Piatti, who became the symbol of the dramatic title win. A few months later, his name was on everyone’s lips again as he starred at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, lifting the trophy alongside Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria. Very short, lightning fast, fearless and an excellent dribbler, he resembled Messi in every possible way. Little wonder that he was supposed to become one of the best wingers in the world, and Almeria considered themselves extremely lucky when they managed to sign the young prodigy for a club record of 30 million dirhams (€7m).

Fast forward to 2013, and very little was left of that Messi aura. Piatti had some brilliant moments during his three seasons at Almeria, and Valencia signed him for 35 million dirhams (€8m) when the small club was relegated in 2011, but he failed to find any kind of consistency.

During the 2011-12 season, Jordi Alba and Jeremy Mathieu developed a superb partnership on Valencia’s left wing, and thus there was no room left for the Argentinian – who became disillusioned on the bench. Things got even worse later on, as injuries prevented him from making a positive impression on the coaches – first Mauricio Pellegrino and then Ernesto Valverde. By the time Miroslav Djukic took over in the summer of 2013, Piatti was no longer needed at the club at all.

The Serbian coach made it crystal clear to the small winger that he was surplus to requirements, and put him on the transfer list against his will. Once courted by the biggest clubs in Europe, Piatti was now left with offers from the likes of Rennes and Metalist Kharkiv. Philippe Montanier has just signed as coach at the former following his success at Real Sociedad, and the Frenchman admired Piatti’s talents, while the Ukrainian side based their front line on diminutive Argentinians. Both offered around 22 million dirhams (€5m) for his services, and Valencia would have been extremely glad to accept, but Piatti angered the club by refusing to leave Spain.

The conflict escalated pretty quickly. Piatti was made to feel as uncomfortable as possible, left behind in Valencia while the team went on a summer trip to the United States. Even his usual No. 11 was taken from him and given to newly signed Colombian striker Dorian Pabon. The Argentinian was given shirt No. 2 instead, as nobody else wanted it.

Loan moves to the likes of Getafe, Celta Vigo or even Almeria were discussed, but no Primera Division side was prepared to pay his significant wages, and negotiations became difficult. To end the saga, Piatti was injured in training on the last day of the transfer window, thus preventing any kind of deal whatsoever. His career was in total disarray.

Luckily for Pablo, Valencia plunged into deep crisis under Djukic, and the Serbian was fired after losing eight out of his first 16 league matches. Piatti duly made his return into the starting lineup on the last week of 2013 against Real Madrid, and – believe it or not – found the net with a header once again, making Sergio Ramos look somewhat amateurish. Los Blancos eventually won 3-2 at the Mestalla, but that didn’t really matter as far as Piatti was concerned. He had made his point with some aplomb.

That’s when the comeback started. Juan Antonio Pizzi, who replaced Djukic on a permanent basis in the beginning of 2014, believed in Piatti and helped him to regain his confidence. The result was very positive, as Valencia climbed up the table, and achieved some sensational results. The best was the 3-2 win over Barcelona at Camp Nou, and Piatti was on the scoresheet once again. With a header, of course. This time he outjumped Dani Alves and made the most of Victor Valdes’ poor positioning; the Argentinian’s aerial ability is nothing short of astonishing for such a short player.

Pizzi surprisingly left his post in the summer, but things got even better for Piatti under Nuno. The Portuguese coach has made him one of the most important cogs in his Los Che machine, affectionately calls him Pablito, and so far this is the best season the winger has experienced in Spain. With Pabon long gone after failing miserably, Piatti has even got his No. 11 shirt back, which symbolises the turnaround in his fortunes. With four goals and six assists to his name so far, Piatti is in his prime.

He knows only too well that he will never become a new Messi, but he doesn’t really have to. It will be more than enough to emulate Valencia’s very own Argentinian wizard Pablo Aimar, who was so loved by Mestalla crowd in the beginning of the previous decade. The new Pablito might be on his way to do so. At the age of 25, sky is still the limit for him, and he is the face of the team now, regularly speaking at press conferences.

The new year started well for Valencia with a win over Real Madrid, but Piatti was injured in the beginning of the game. After a month on the sidelines, the Argentine was back on Sunday, and duly scored an important goal in a 2-1 win at Espanyol, helping his team to climb back to fourth place. 2014 was very good for Piatti, but could 2015 be even better?

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Barca cruise past Villarreal in semis first-leg

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Lethal combination: Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi combined to give Barcelona the lead in the first-half in their Copa Del Rey semi-final tie against Villarreal.

Barcelona took a big step towards the Copa del Rey final with a first-leg victory over Villarreal at the Nou Camp last night.

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Lionel Messi netted for the third consecutive game before the visitors grabbed an away goal from Manu Trigueros, only for the hosts to establish a deserved margin of victory through Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique.

Barca quickly established domination of possession with Messi inevitably at the heart of all their attacking pressure and winning a trio of early corners.

The Argentine also had the game’s first effort on goal after Iniesta won possession and Luis Suarez found Messi, who jinked inside before trying his luck with a snapshot which was half-blocked to give visiting keeper Sergio Asenjo an easy save.

Leading the line: Villarreal's Manuel Trigueros levelled early on in the second half thanks to a Marc-Andre ter Stegen howler.

Messi then squandered the first clear chance, receiving a cutback from Iniesta in space on the edge of the box but firing wastefully over the bar with his usually trusty left foot.

Villarreal had defended well but one mistake was all Barca needed, as Suarez pounced on a poor pass from Tomas Pina and raced into the box before unselfishly squaring to Messi who thumped decisively home.

The same duo nearly combined for another two minutes later as Messi threaded a pass for Suarez to unleash a fierce drive which fizzed wide across the face of goal, before Iniesta did a similar thing from the other side of the box.

Then Messi shot into the side-netting after Suarez was challenged inside the box, before Villarreal ended the half with their first serious attack as Denis Cheryshev broke and crossed for Luciano Vietto to steer goalwards, producing an excellent low save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

Gerard Pique celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring Barcelona's third for the night.

Villarreal levelled at the start of the second half when substitute Trigueros – on for inspirational captain Bruno who was stretchered off on 33 minutes – picked up a loose ball in midfield and drove into space before unleashing a 25-yard thunderbolt which wobbled in the night sky and escaped the grasp of ter Stegen, who will have been disappointed not to save

But within seconds, Barca were back ahead when Iniesta found Suarez who went down under a challenge and, amid hopeful penalty appeals, Iniesta ran onto the loose ball to sweep home with his left foot.

The same pattern as the first half then resumed as Barca dictated the flow of the action while Villarreal – generally without much success – attempted to spring forward on the counter-attack.

Iniesta and Suarez had ambitious efforts deflected wide and the visiting defence was forced into a series of last-ditch challenges and clearances as the hosts attempted to extend their advantage.

And they did just that when Messi unusually took a right-wing corner and Pique lost his marker to power home a far post header – his fourth goal in two months to again illustrate Barca’s new-found potency from set-pieces.

Neymar then wasted a chance to make it 4-1 from the penalty spot, seeing his effort saved by Asenjo’s dive to his right after a contentiously awarded spot-kick for handball against Mateo Musacchio.

Substitute Ivan Rakitic tested Asenjo at his near post with a fierce long-range strike, but Villarreal were still occasionally dangerous on the break and the hosts needed a great block from Jeremy Mathieu to resist a goalbound effort from Moi Gomez and take their two-goal advantage into the second leg.

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