Connect in the back of the net

Back in 2011 Bojan Krkic joined Roma from Barcelona in a complicated deal that cost the Italian club an initial €12 million but permitted the Catalans the opportunity to buy-back the attacker two seasons later for an obligatory €13 million.

Bojan started more games for the Giallorossi than any other player that season, making 33 appearances and netting seven goals, but the featherweight striker struggled to adapt to the physical demands of Serie A and was shipped out to AC Milan on a season-long loan for the 2012-13 season.

At Milan Bojan scored 3 goals having started just nine games, making a further 14 appearances from the bench. With a clause in his contract ready to be initiated if he played a certain number of games for Milan that meant the Rossoneri would have to buy him permanently, they stopped using him and back to Barcelona he went with his confidence shattered.

A La Masia graduate who had been drilled with the Barcelona doctrine of stylish possession-based football for twenty years, the Italian league, where forwards have to deal with being marked so firmly and space and time on the ball is at a premium, didn’t suit Bojan so it is perhaps more surprising that he is now finally discovering form, at the age of 25, in the unlikely surroundings of Stoke City and the Premier League.

 

Waived by Ajax, welcomed by Stoke

After a season’s spell at Ajax, in which he helped the Dutch club secure their fourth consecutive title with four goals from 24 league appearances, he again returned to Barcelona after suffering a drastic drop in form after starting positively in Holland. He got three assists in his opening six games but recorded no more for the season and after another break-down in form and confidence, Ajax waived their option to extend Bojan’s contract.

Stoke then came in with the stability of a four-year contract and a fee of €1.8 million that 18 months and nine goals later is unfolding as an outstanding investment. Questions were asked when Bojan chose the high-octane rough and tumble Premier League with which to take refuge from a stalling career but he has answered each one emphatically so far, also dousing accusations that he is mentally fragile by returning successfully from the knee ligament damage that curtailed his impressive debut season last January.

Bojan has benefitted from manager Mark Hughes’s understanding that the diminutive striker would need time and patience to adapt to the demands of English football, luxuries he was never afforded in Italy or Holland, and after a short spell out of the team not long after joining, he returned to score goals in wins over Tottenham, Everton, Leicester and Arsenal.

Though the ACL injury would see him ruled out for the second half of the campaign, his four league goals earned victories that were crucial in achieving Stoke’s final standing of ninth, equalling their highest-ever league finish and breaking their points record with 54.

 

Central role

This time round he has already bettered his goal tally, scoring five from 14 starts as he enjoys the central role in a gifted forward-line that Hughes has forged with Xherdhan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic and Ibrahim Afellay. His most recent strike came in the 2-0 win over Manchester United on Boxing Day while he was spectacular in the crazy 3-4 win at Everton two days later, linking up with Arnautovic to provide Shaqiri’s first-goal before producing a sublimely weighted through-pass from which the Swiss lobbed in his wonderful second.

In a team that possesses such precocious individual talent, Hughes has managed to generate an acceptance within his players that the team is priority and Bojan, who made way for Joselu at Goodison Park to make it the tenth time the Spaniard has been substituted this season, has not sulked or played up to his standing as the two-time Champions League winner now in the humble surroundings of the Potteries.

That is testament to the desire of the little striker to finally adapt and fit into the demands of top-level football, and to the boundless team-spirit Mark Hughes has created despite his acquisition of star-name players.

 

Flying with the Potters

Hughes’s formula of deploying Bojan as a central “false-nine” position to lead Stoke’s gifted forward-line that operates on the base of a solid defence and a combative midfield, has the Potters eyeing a top-6 finish, they lie just two points off fifth-placed Crystal Palace at the season’s half-way stage, and cup glory as they prepare to take on Liverpool in the semi-finals of the League Cup in January.

“Imagine if Stoke played Champions League”, he asked earlier in December, the ambition now burning bright.

But Bojan, with his ACL injury fresh in the mind and his experiences in Spain, Italy and Holland dogging his past, will be aware how quickly fortunes can change however and he will strive to avoid a similar fall from grace here. Hughes though has built the perfect platform for the striker to continue his renaissance and a possible opportunity to add to his sole Spanish cap may not be far way if he sustains his current form.

“There are only a few players who have a magical touch,” said Pep Guardiola, the manager who inherited the attacker after taking over at the Nou Camp from Frank Rijkaard, “and Bojan is one of them.”

 

The perfect fit?

The Spaniard would leave Catalonia on sour terms with the coach, with the pressure of playing for such a massive club taking its toll on the youngster, but nobody could take away that plaudit from him.

Now, after failing to prove it in Milan and then Amsterdam, Guardiola’s words are becoming true whilst most others’ are being shown to be wrong as Stoke turns out to be Bojan’s perfect fit.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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