One word – boring.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh, especially with Cha Cha Cha Martinez doing his thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Porto fan. Watch every game, wear supporters’ gear, run circles in the house when we score…but we’ve now seen its like death without him. No wonder his price tag has skyrocketed in the last year, garnering interest from clubs such as Manchester United and Tottenham. He’s a rarity these days – a creative winger who can carry a team on his shoulders (very mature for someone his age) like he did in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain but who also has the sense enough to track back and defend. Who else at Porto offers such a tantalizing blend of prowess and cover?
That’s likely the exact question that manager Vitor Pereira set out to answer since January 6th when James suffered a muscle injury right before halftime against Nacional de Madeira. Since that time, Porto has maintained their unbeaten record in Liga Sagres play, but some may feel only just. Lacking his spark out wide Porto have managed to beat or tie all their opponents, including a crazy tie in O Classico against Benfica, but the scorelines have been sketchy. One can’t help but feel if James had been on the pitch perhaps we could have got the 3 points in O Classico or beat Nacional and Pacos Ferreira more convincingly. Fresh off a 3-0 win over Vitoria de Setubal on Wednesday that saw 2 opposing players sent off, Porto and its fans shouldn’t be fooled. Until the sending off(s), it was a dismal affair with the only thing separating the clubs being Jackson Martinez’ penalty.
So who’s around to fill the gap? It would be foolish to think that we could hold onto James forever. That’s not how Porto operates nor can I believe that’s what James wants, no matter how happy he is here and how happy we are to have him. Pereira has tried Defour, Kelvin, Iturbe, and Seba in recent weeks, all with varying levels of success (if you want to look at it positively). Options exist for Porto, so let’s have a look.
Defour, as was clearly shown against Pacos, is not a natural winger. He is too defensive minded, and while that can be a plus a winger must find a balance between offensive and defensive duties. Defour rarely got into good positions going forward and when he did could not make the most of them. The Belgian, likeable as he may be, is clearly not the answer. Sadly, it took Pereira more than half of the game to recognize that fact and only when Izmaylov was subbed in and Defour slid to cover the back line did the offense start churning once again, albeit slowly.
Speaking of Izmaylov, the Russian could be a possible answer. While all we have to go on is a late cameo appearance, what we did see was a player getting into good positions offensively. Chalk it up to his age and experience as a right midfielder. He provides another option out on the wing and it’s not uncommon to see him play there for Russia. One of the few drawbacks is that he likes to cut inside, but with Danilo surging forward the overlap allows Izmaylov to get into promising positions inside the box. This is how he scored his first goal for Porto – except Kelvin provided the cross. Of course, Izmaylov needs further testing and, in reality, James could be back before that opportunity arises.
Another option rests with young Kelvin, an exciting prospect but one who fans are unsure of. He was out on loan for much of last season, so he hasn’t really been tested fully with Porto – until now. He’s shown glimpses of promise when given chances, used mostly as a substitute this season. In Porto’s last match against Setubal he won his first start and once again did well by getting into wide positions to draw out the defense. Even before that, as mentioned prior, Kelvin logged an assist when he lobbed in a cross and Izmaylov buried it in the back of the net. Could Kelvin be the answer? He certainly makes a strong argument. He’s fast, skillful, agile, young…all properties that are shared with James. What he lacks in experience he makes up with those properties. Experience that, let’s be honest, has to start somewhere so why not here and now? Perhaps that’s what Vitor Pereira thought as well.
Iturbe is another exciting prospect, also quite young. Having seen him play for Argentina in the South American U-20 Championships it’s clear he’s ready for a bigger role despite his country not making it into the finals. His movement is excellent and playing on the wing is his natural position. He scored a very nice goal against Colombia last week, but in that role he was playing as a second striker. Iturbe’s stats don’t do justice to what he has to offer. He has only made three appearances so far this season in total with the first team and hasn’t scored any goals. When playing for Porto B he’s scored once in six matches. Iturbe will, like the rest of them, have to show the staff that he can make a bigger difference. I wouldn’t put it past him to make a significant challenge for the spot if and when James leaves Porto.
There are others of course, such as Sebá who is on loan from Brazilian side Cruzeiro. Also a young and gifted player, he’s seen playing time on a few occasions as a substitute and done reasonably well. What it really comes down to in the end is that there is no like for like replacement for James Rodriguez. Porto fans should feel lucky that we get to see this wondrous talent on our side. Talent – good talent – comes and goes at Porto all the time, but there’s no doubt that James is special. Clearly, it’s not time to solve this situation now but it’s good to have an idea of who is next in line. So the next time you find yourself sitting down to watch the Dragons, just remember how lucky you are!
*All stats from fcporto.pt