Reyes return sets Sevilla puzzle
January transfers are usually scrambled affairs, but the re-appearance of Thierry Henry and Paul Scholes in the Premier League have proven that desperation doesn't have to be so ugly. If this is the winter window to melt the coldest heart, then few returns have been as warmly received as that of Jose Antonio Reyes to Sevilla. For a prodigiously gifted player who has rarely felt at home outside la sartén de España ('the frying pan of Spain'), the feeling is entirely mutual.
"I lost out on a lot of money to be here but I'd rather lose the money than lose the chance to return," Reyes said at his official presentation, responding to reports that previous club Atletico Madrid still owed him wages and bonuses. The financial side of it worked out pretty well for Sevilla, picking up a 28-year-old attacking pep-up for just £2.9 million, plus modest potential add-ons. There's even enough left in the kitty for the club to continue their pursuit of Tottenham's Giovani dos Santos.
Walking through the corridors of the Sanchez Pizjuan on Wednesday night ahead of Reyes' second home debut, in the Copa del Rey against Valencia, one didn't have to look far to realise what a big deal this is. On one wall is a commemorative plaque for Sevilla's 2005 centenary, listing the club's 100 greatest players. Reyes takes his place on there, among company that includes Diego Maradona, Ivan Zamorano and Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos.
Yet if the return of an old favourite is great news for the locals, it has not papered over the cracks of a difficult present - a present made even harder to bear by memories of the stylish swagger that took the club to successive UEFA Cups in 2006 and 2007. The miserable weekend defeat at Rayo Vallecano (which Reyes' appearance couldn't prevent) left Sevilla in seventh place, within striking distance of the Champions League spots but ultimately frustrated. Worse still, a club known for its daring approach has now scored just 19 times in the opening 17 La Liga games.
If Reyes could be the saviour, he will have to produce something heroic to save his new coach. That introductory press conference last week had been an unusual occasion, and not without its awkwardness, as Reyes took the field at the Sanchez Pizjuan in kit to cheers and applause - and his new coach Marcelino was met with boos and whistles.
Hence Reyes jogged out on Wednesday to an initially rather subdued, half-full stadium, with a polite round of applause as his name was read out over the tannoy. Against Valencia, he began reprising the role in which he started that ill-fated game at Rayo, sat in the hole behind the lone Alvaro Negredo.
The circumspect Marcelino has always struggled to meet the expectation to attack, and Reyes seems to have presented him with another quandary. The fans would clearly love to see fellow academy product Jesus Navas on the right and Reyes on the left, but the worthy Manu del Moral was chosen to work the opposite flank, with the new man left to pick up the pieces in the centre.
Perhaps it was position or perhaps it was nerves, but Reyes' opening stanza of the match was all tentative prods and hopeful flicks, short of the certainty of the now-iconic Navas, and the current man-of-the-house Negredo. Both players have consistently displayed rather more application than Reyes has in recent years, too.
If the chances of Marcelino being around long enough to develop a meaningful working relationship with Reyes are doubtful, managing the new star may bring its challenges for the Asturian. To say Reyes has had his ups and downs with his coaches leans on the side of understatement, and his bumpy time at Atletico took in huge fall-outs with Javier Aguirre and - last season - Gregorio Manzano.
Apart from a few notable high points at Arsenal and Real Madrid, his best post-Sevilla form has been under Quique Sánchez Flores, at Benfica in 2008-09 and then when the pair were reunited at the Vicente Calderon. He was arguably Atletico's best player last season. Some have suggested that Flores' genuine comprehension of Reyes' gypsy background is a factor in this; Flores' mother Carmen and her sister Lola - a reputed flamenco artist - are Andalusian, and though not of full gypsy stock, identify strongly with the culture.
Yet while the images of a tearful Reyes leaving Sevilla eight years ago for London endure, and remind us of his closeness to his family, it is facile and ill-informed to simply point to his background in explanation for his stop-start career. His own combustible nature and his failure to cope with some of the rough treatment he experienced from defenders as a marked man are also elements that have worked against him.
There is still work to do now, especially if Reyes is to fulfil his dream of "coming back to win trophies." In moments against Valencia he briefly recalled the tyro that wowed the world in tearing apart Real Madrid here in November 2003. One deft skip around Victor Ruiz left him facing Diego Alves, but he scuffed his shot straight at the Brazilian.
His willingness isn't matched by his productivity. Thursday's edition of Seville-based sports daily Estadio Deportivo was sympathetic to the returning hero, pointing out he is still "in a period of adaptation," and complaining of Valencia's defenders stopping Reyes "by either legal or criminal means." The latter point was backed up by the fact that all of the visitors' first-half bookings (for Miguel, David Albelda and Adil Rami) were for fouls on him.
Reyes almost made himself the hero at the end. With Sevilla needing a last-gasp goal to avoid elimination he sped down the left for the first time, and sent a superb cross to the back post, where Fredi Kanoute headed agonisingly wide. In a crazy, muddled end to the game where Sevilla were virtually playing with five up front, some clarity emerged. The lessons in getting the best from the new signing are rooted firmly in the past.