The world's best team doesn't have a striker, and this isn't just any best team in the world, either. This is Spain, a side that could be crowned the greatest team ever should they beat Italy in Sunday's Euro 2012 final. A win would mean their third consecutive major tournament trophy -- a feat never before achieved. And, because it bears repeating, they're going to do this without a striker.
It wasn't always this way for Spain. Back when their magical run started at Euro 2008, they had Fernando Torres and David Villa. Torres was coming off of a season in which he scored 33 goals for Liverpool and Villa has just scored 22 for Valencia. They were two of the better strikers in the world and Luis Aragonés was a lucky man with plenty of options to play with. Sometimes he used the two together up top, sometimes he fielded Torres as a lone strike, and he even played around with David Villa as a winger.
After 2008, Aragonés made way for Vicente del Bosque. While the new manager's über-cautious tendencies may have opened the door for a sometimes anemic, sometimes strikerless attack, it was a stampede of poor luck that got Spain to where they are today.
Nobody needs to be reminded of the misfortune that has struck Torres. Injuries bit him, then his form betrayed him and he became the laughingstock of the football world, with a £50 million transfer to Chelsea sandwiched in the middle just for good measure. He was arguably the best striker in the world at one point, and had his talent essentially disappear into thin air right in the midst of his prime.
Meanwhile, David Villa broke his tibia in December and has not played since. But here's the dirty secret of world football -- he hadn't been particularly good for almost a year before he got hurt. His form dipped and even before that, del Bosque didn't really play him as a striker. He played him out wide most of the time and even if the fancy graphic that popped up on the TV before matches told you he was a striker, he really wasn't.
Torres made Spain's team for Euro 2012, but two fine finishes aside, he hasn't been particularly good -- ineffective would be the kindest way to describe him. Obviously, broken legged Villa didn't even make the team. Neither did Roberto Soldado, who was left off for Álvaro Negredo. The only problem there is that Negredo proved himself ill-equipped for the big stage in Spain's semifinal against Portugal.
Del Bosque found himself quickly running out of options, which is partly why he opted to play without a striker in two of Spain's Euro matches so far. Torres, Negredo, Villa and Soldado are either not available or not particularly attractive options, so why not turn to the team's abundance of fantastic midfielders? It's not like there are any other options, right?
There is another option, though. There is Fernando Llorente, The Lion King. The man with the luxurious mane is a perfectly capable and fit striker, and has churned out goal after goal for years now, including 30 last season alone for Athletic Bilbao. He is a proven 6'5'' goalscorer, who has also shown that he can play away from goal and link up with teammates too.
Yet for reasons nobody can quite explain, del Bosque refuses to play Llorente. He hasn't played The Lion King for a single minute at Euro 2012 despite the failings or unavailability of his other striker options. This Lion King story isn't that much different from the one we know and love. Actually, they line up perfectly. Without further ado, we present the important figures in Fernando Llorente's footballing life as characters in "The Lion King."
Vicente del Bosque as Scar: The throne of the Spanish football kingdom was free and del Bosque pounced. Results have come and on the surface, all looks well, but problems are brewing. Meanwhile, Simba, who could fix many of the problems in the kingdom, remains exiled.
Marcelo Bielsa as Mufasa: The Argentinian helped showcase and feature Simba last season, but he might as well be dead in the international game, trampled by the Euros. He is a beloved man, but he is no more and has left Simba with nothing except for valuable lessons.
Javi Martinez as Nala: A fellow Basque, Martinez is Simba's link to the team and he still has status on the Spain team. He is in no way considered important, but he gets the occasional runout so he has his role. Nala also has ties to Simba, waiting and wondering when the man with so much potential, Llorente, will get his chance.
Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta as Timon and Pumba: The two Barcelona men are the best of friends and like to have a good time. They link up with a myriad of sideways and backwards passes, but spend training actually passing the ball forward and have a jolly ol' time. Because in training there is a striker. In training, when they are just screwing around, Timon and Pumba have Simba.
Sergio Busquets as Shenzi: The leader of the hyenas, Busquets is hated by pretty much everyone. He is brutal, he is annoying and above all else he's a survivor. He would not have the slightest problem turning on Scar.
Sergio Ramos as Ed: Undoubtedly a fine player, nobody ever looks at Ramos and feels intimidated. He's often seen laughing and never seems quite sure what's going on. Moreover, he is full of bad ideas and willing to join any bandwagon -- in this case that of Scar and Shenzi's.
For now, Simba is frozen out, but Nala is keeping Simba apprised of what is going on. He has the teachings of Mufasa and one day, not too far in the future, Scar will fall. Be it in the Euro 2012 final or in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, Scar will fall and it will be for a myriad of reasons.
The double pivot that Scar insists on will be partly to blame and Shenzi, who would much rather be a lone holder, will be quick to jump on Scar's corpse. But the crux of Scar's will be his refusal to play a striker, or play his best one. Then, once Scar has fallen, Simba will rise to his rightful place as The Lion King.
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