Until proven otherwise, Barcelona are currently the best side in Europe. There was a time not so long ago when they also had the best reserve team on the continent, too.
In 2011, while Barça’s seniors were busy winning La Liga and the Champions League, their B team were in the midst of a special season of their own. Coached by none other than Luis Enrique, Barça B scored the most goals in the division and finished in the play-off places for promotion to the top flight.
Their squad was littered with talented youngsters like Thiago Alcantara and Nolito, who have since gone on to play regularly in the world’s best leagues. Perhaps the key reason for their success, though, was their exceptional goalscorer at the top of the pitch.
Unlike his old dressing room companions, that player hasn’t really been in the spotlight since. Signed on a free from Espanyol, striker Jonathan Soriano scored 32 goals in the 2010/11 Segunda Division, finishing as the league's top scorer. The highest tally notched in the league since 1987, and one that hasn’t been bettered since, it foreshadowed a five-year burst in which Soriano has become one of the most lethal finishers on the continent – and one who still largely goes unrecognised.
The principal reason for that is because of where he plays. Soriano’s momentum in 2011 was set to take him into Barcelona’s senior setup, but a badly timed knee injury killed his trajectory. By the time he had recovered in the winter of that year, the first-team ship had sailed, and in January 2012 the Blaugrana sold the forward for a meagre €500,000 to Red Bull Salzburg.
In hindsight, it was almost an act of charity.
The striker took to his new home like a duck to water, and in the four years since his move he has made a mockery of the Austrian Bundesliga, registering extraordinary figures in front of goal.
In October 2015, he netted for the 100th time in his 113th game in Austria, racking up his century in 20 matches fewer than the legendary Hans Krankl. When he scored his 108th goal in his 124th league appearance just over a week ago, he became the highest-ever foreign scorer in the competition alongside Zlatko Kranjcar, who took 213 games to hit the same number. He added league goal No.109 at the weekend.
In each of his full seasons with Salzburg, the Catalan has finished as his side’s top scorer. If the campaigns in which he has played fewer than 20 matches are disregarded, Soriano averages 37 goals in each competitive year. Given that there are still a few months left to play in 2015/16, that figure is likely to go up further.
It’s easy to scoff at the level of domestic football in Austria, but Soriano’s numbers across the board prove his talent. Indeed, the striker’s record holds up remarkably well when tougher fixtures are brought into the equation: he has scored 21 goals in 27 European games, with 17 in 19 coming in the Europa League proper.
Thriving in Europe
His performances in that competition in 2013/14 are one of the best demonstrations of his quality. Soriano was the tournament’s top scorer that year after netting 11 times, beating the likes of Paco Alcacer, Kevin Gameiro and Carlos Bacca to the Golden Boot. His three goals in two games against Ajax – including one from the halfway line – played a huge part in eliminating Frank de Boer’s charges in the last 32 just three months after the Dutch outfit had beaten Barcelona in the Champions League.
Chances to play against the best are rare at Salzburg, but Soriano has still managed to score against Ajax, Basel, Celtic, Villarreal and Fenerbahçe. There is thus, a convincing argument to be made that he would be even more prolific were he to have a stronger support cast around him.
Soriano does a Charlie Adam
Having created more goals – 59 assists in 171 games – for others than anyone else in the club's history, the 30-year-old is evidently a cut above the standard of player he currently shares a dressing room with. Put him alongside better players at a club where he doesn't have to shoulder so much of the attacking burden, and it's likely that Soriano would produce even better numbers.
Premier League bargain?
So why hasn’t anyone snapped him up while he's performing at such a high level? Many have tried, albeit tentatively. In the summer of 2015, for instance, Bayer Leverkusen made an approach, while there was also interest from Ajax and the Premier League.
Two stumbling blocks killed the prospective moves, however. The first was that no team could assure him of the same regular playing time he is currently enjoying in Austria, and the second was the fee that his club demanded. “Maybe at my age €15m is too much for the teams who want to sign me,” Soriano admitted.
On the contrary, €15m is pocket change for someone who is capable of registering double figures season after season. Soriano may now be the wrong side of 30, but Athletic Club’s 35-year-old frontman Aritz Aduriz has proven this term that older players can still succeed at the highest level.
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Soriano, much like Aduriz, seems to have improved with age. With goals such a difficult commodity to come by and €15m small money for Premier League clubs these days, he would represent a relatively low-risk acquisition for English outfits this summer.
Salzburg boss Oscar Garcia, a former Barcelona player who has managed Brighton and Watford in the Championship, says Soriano is the best footballer he has ever coached, while the player himself seems open to new adventures.
“All I need is to find a team that trusts me and is prepared to pay what Salzburg want,” he explained earlier this season. “I like challenges… the door is always open.”
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