Everton target Sandro having dream season after leaving Barcelona
Ronald Koeman was spotted in the stands at Malaga's La Rosaleda stadium on Sunday. The Dutchman might have been linked to the soon-to-be-vacant post at Barcelona, but he is planning for the future of Everton at the moment, and had come to watch Sandro Ramirez.
Koeman wasn't disappointed as the 21-year-old striker netted his 14th goal of the season in the 3-0 thrashing of Celta Vigo. It was Sandro's seventh goal in the last seven matches, and you can hardly find a player in better form in the whole of La Liga, other than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The streak includes a majestic strike in the 2-0 win over Barcelona at the beginning of April, which could yet prove to be crucial in deciding the title race. The Catalans had fate in their hands at that moment, but the man they released in the summer helped put Real Madrid in the driving seat instead.
It is no secret that La Masia graduates have been given few opportunities to prove themselves at Camp Nou in recent years. Once upon a time, local prospects like Pedro Rodriguez and Bojan Krkic were nurtured with care, but ever since Neymar and Luis Suarez joined Messi to complete the dream MSN trio, there is little place for inexperienced players like Sandro. His hopes of making the grade at his beloved team shattered to pieces, he had no option but to leave.
It was a sad departure for a young talent who had joined the famous academy at the age of 14. Spotted back in 2009 by Barcelona scout Jordi Gris in the Canary Islands, Sandro impressed during a youth tournament in Catalonia and, once he made the move, his progress was remarkable as goals kept coming for various youth teams.
The striker was especially delighted when his idol, David Villa, joined Barcelona from Valencia in 2010. The top scorer in the history of Spain's national team had always been a role model for Sandro, who once stated: "He is similar to me because of his speed, his way of running diagonals and looking over his back at the defence."
But his development was hurt when Sandro hurt the meniscus in his right knee in 2012, and he was unlucky enough to suffer the same injury on his left knee just a few months later. Showing mental and physical strength to get back to full fitness, he was promoted to the Barcelona reserve team in 2013 and, by the summer of 2014, Sandro was invited to join the first squad by Luis Enrique.
His debut could not have gone better. He replaced fellow Canary Islander Pedro toward the end of a tough away fixture at Villarreal and duly scored the winner, assisted by none other than Messi.
The press went out of the way to hail the new star, and Sandro made a lot of headlines alongside Munir El Haddadi, especially after scoring his second goal at Levante, and netting vs. Ajax in the Champions League. And yet when Suarez returned after his four-month suspension for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup had ended, the youngster simply became surplus to requirements. Sandro returned to Barcelona B.
There was no shortage of suitors for Sandro's services at the time, and Tottenham were the most persistent. Mauricio Pochettino singled out the striker as the potential backup for Harry Kane, but Barcelona refused to sell because the transfer ban imposed by FIFA in April didn't enable them to sign a replacement.
Spurs came back in January 2016 but were turned down again, and that was a major miscalculation by the Catalans. They could have received a reasonable fee for the striker but demanded €10m, even though Sandro's contract was due to end last summer. Barcelona had an option to extend it until May but chose not to do so and signed Paco Alcacer from Valencia instead. Sandro, limited to just four starts and six substitute appearances in Primera Division last season, was allowed to go.
"The fairest thing was to open the door," Barcelona sporting director Robert Fernandez explained. That might have been a nice gesture of goodwill, but it looks disastrous in retrospect, especially given Alcacer's acclimatisation problems at Camp Nou.
Sandro may have been disappointed to leave Barcelona, but seems to have made a smart choice joining Malaga and is fast became one of the top stars at the club. His clever runs, precise shooting and remarkably good free kicks have turned him into one of the best strikers in the league. His self-confidence has grown month-by-month and even an injury setback in the beginning of 2017 couldn't stop Sandro's progress. He came back stronger than ever to gun down his former team.
Yet 11th-placed Malaga are not having the best of seasons and have made two coaching changes along the way. That only makes Sandro's achievement more remarkable. Now the Andalusians understand that it will be difficult to keep their prodigy because of his €6m release clause. "It would have been impossible to bring him here without it," the sporting director Francesc Arnau acknowledged.
That is why Koeman is evidently adamant to act quickly. With Romelu Lukaku's future at Goodison Park uncertain, a potential replacement is needed. Sandro is a different type of striker than the Belgian -- he is less physical and a bit more mobile -- but definitely has what it takes to succeed in the Premier League.
Barcelona can only watch in despair as their academy graduate makes a name for him elsewhere on his way to stardom. They will hope for one last present, though. Malaga host Real Madrid on the last matchday in Spain and Sandro could yet be the man to beat Los Blancos and gift the title to the Catalans.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin