Zimbabwe: Almiron Shows Why Nakamba Needs Love

16 January 2020

Robson Sharuko, Senior Sports Editor

MIGUEL ALMIRON scored for Newcastle in their 4-0 win over Rochdale in an FA Cup third round replay on Wednesday night -- his third goal, in as many games, for the Magpies.

In the first two weeks of the New Year, the Paraguayan international footballer has scored three goals in three matches -- one in the league and two in the FA Cup.

It's a fine return for the 25-year-old forward, whose newly-found purple patch in front of goal was the reason Newcastle splashed a then club-record £21 million to lure him from Atlanta United in the United States Major League Soccer.

So, why should we care about the exploits of a Paraguayan footballer, with a baby face, who arrived in England In January last year after breaking the transfer record for an MLS player?

Fair question!

But, of course, we should.

Because, hidden somewhere beneath his recent flurry of goals, is a story of endurance, passion, patience, determination and challenges which we have to appreciate and understand.

It's a remarkable story which illustrates the difficulties that come with adjusting to the English Premiership for foreign players arriving in that league for the first time.

It's also another powerful tale that should teach us, if ever we needed such a sermon, that some of the brutal criticism we have been dishing out to Marvelous Nakamba, in recent weeks, might just be a bit unfair.

The Zimbabwe international midfielder, the first Warrior to join the English Premiership since Benjani Mwaruwari moved to Portsmouth in 2004, has been receiving quite some stick in the past few weeks.

A chorus has been raging at home that Nakamba has been poor, if not pathetic, in the Villa colours with some even now questioning whether he is good enough to play in the English Premiership.

The euphoria that greeted his arrival in Birmingham, with many local fans proud one of them had made a giant leap into the English top-flight league, appears slowly to be fading.

And, where there was just contagious love, we have now seen a retreat, in some circles, to join an army of brutal critics of the midfielder's recent performances in the Villa shirt.

Critically, questions are now popping up, within this group, about whether Nakamba has the quality to play in the tough English Premiership with some even predicting he would be off-loaded soon.

Villa's decision to bring in Danny Drinkwater, on loan until the end of the season, has been seen by some as a move by manager Dean Smith to give the club what Nakamba has been failing to provide in the defensive shield of the midfield.

Drinkwater was pushed into the starting XI last weekend, for a debut against Manchester City, with Nakamba being sacrificed, but the former Leicester City star had a baptism of fire in a 1-6 thrashing for Villa.

After being released by Burnley, where he hardly featured during his loan spell, Drinkwater found the pace against City too much to handle and was the weak link, in the defensive shield, as Villa were humiliated at home.

They were already trailing 0-5 when Nakamba came in the second half but the ruthless City continued pouring forward and made it half-a-dozen when the hosts once again surrendered possession in a dangerous area.

Villa, after spending more than £140 million on new players during the last English summer, find themselves among the bottom three clubs on the table and questions, inevitably, are being asked about the quality -- or lack of it -- of the new arrivals.

Given it's a team usually set up to frustrate the opponents, rather than going blow-for-blow against them, Nakamba has found himself under the spotlight as they continue to leak in goals.

But, is he as bad as some have been suggesting, or he just happens to be someone playing for a team that has now lost its way with many of the players struggling with the quality of the English Premiership?

Is it fair to lump all the blame on Nakamba, to the extent of even questioning his pedigree, or we should have factored in the need to give him more time to adjust to the demands of this tough league?

The case of Almiron is an interesting one and could probably not only help us acknowledge the difficulties that come with making such a transition but illustrate the importance of why Nakamba needs support rather than criticism.

When Almiron arrived at Newcastle in January last year, he landed under a blaze of expectations because the Magpies had paid more to get him than the £15m they parted with to sign Alan Shearer from Blackburn in 1996.

Or the £16m they paid Real Madrid to get Michael Owen in 2003 and the £14.5m they paid PSV Eindhoven for Gini Wijnaldum before he later moved to Liverpool.

However, despite arriving with a reputation as a goal-scorer, Almiron -- the most expensive player sold by an MLS club -- did not score a goal until December 21 against Crystal Palace.

By the time he finally broke his duck last month, after almost completing an entire calendar year without a goal, he had featured for 2 199 minutes on the pitch for Newcastle without a goal.

However, the people in his home country Paraguay, forever charmed by his rise from a poor family where he was the last of seven children whose parents had just two rooms for a home, didn't abandon him during his dark days as he struggled at Newcastle.

Crucially, his home media also didn't abandon him as they kept rallying behind him while he searched for that elusive first goal in that difficult adjustment.

When the goal finally came, against Palace just four days before Christmas, Newcastle manager, Steve Bruce, probably summed it best.

"To be honest, I nearly did a Jose Mourinho (running down the touchline in celebrations)," Bruce told The Daily Telegraph.

"Even I got carried away, I was ready to run down the touchline but I was afraid my hip would come out, and my knee for that matter as well.

"We are all really delighted for Miguel. I've only had the privilege to work with him for five months but he's a great player and professional, a really popular lad with the group and you really want someone like that to succeed."

That's a player who had taken 27 games and 11 months of adjustment looking for his first goal despite arriving as the then record club-signing at Newcastle.

And, he is being described as a "great player and professional," while all we do is lump the criticism on Nakamba for misplacing one or two passes.

Bruce, a very successful captain at Manchester United as a player, who has coached various clubs, knows the difficulties that come with trying to settle in the Premiership.

"He's got this goal thing off his back now and it's good to see," Bruce said."The fans have stuck with him. I think they realise he's a good player and they know a good player when they see one.

"My mates told me he lit the place up when he came in January. To me it's his best performance."

Three weeks later, Almiron has four goals, including three in the last three matches, and saved his club from FA Cup elimination with the goal that forced the replay at Rochdale.

"Settling in at first was a bit tough," he says. "I can't deny.

"It was the first time I had been to England and it was all different, the language, the weather, the culture and, of course, there was pressure."

But his people didn't abandon, or question him, and one gets a feeling it's what Nakamba needs right now as he faces the toughest challenge of his career.

After all, just like Almiron, he is 25 and, like the Paraguayan, comes from a humble background here in Zimbabwe.

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