It was the perfect ambush. Barely 20 seconds had registered on the clock, so effectively Barcelona were a third of a minute into their defence of the 2011 European Cup. And they were at home, at Camp Nou, against the club the Catalan giants were on well their way to eclipsing as the most successful in the Uefa Champions League this century.
But AC Milan had something to surprise Barcelona, a brilliant soloist with an astonishing turn of speed, a smooth, elegant stride, and a coolness in his finishing that even Lionel Messi would be obliged to admire.
Alexandre Pato’s goal that night in Catalonia is as compelling to watch now as it was to be there that September evening. Some of its beauty comes from the way he streaks clear, jet-propelled, from Sergio Busquets, with such an unruffled confidence. He had taken possession close to the halfway line. Nobody else touched the ball between then and his scoring the opening goal 24 seconds in.
That was the Pato Milan hoped to see far more often: uninhibited, supremely confident, mature beyond his years. But within a month of that that wonder goal he was injured, yet another muscular problem keeping out for a period of several weeks. It was to be a familiar story of his stop-start adventure in Italy, which began when he signed for Milan even before his 18th birthday, having made his name with Internacional in his native Brazil, and ended barely a year after that night in Barcelona, when he left European club football, age 22.
Pato is now back in Europe, on loan at Chelsea from Corinthians, and few signings made in the winter window look as intriguing.
There’s the position of Chelsea, a club who throughout the years of Roman Abramovich’s ownership have been almost obsessively drawn to the idea of hiring the brightest young Brazilian talents. They have often been snubbed by Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho – when he had status – and by Neymar.
Pato may not have the cachet of the three on that list who have made the Ballon d’Or podium, but at one point it was forecast of him that he would.
Where did the potential derail? Certainly, the repeated injuries interrupted Pato’s progress, and meant he struggled to gain momentum in his Milan career, and indeed with Brazil, well before Neymar’s emergence, imagined it might be Pato who would be the poster-boy for their own World Cup in 2014.
He did not make the squad.
Pato was back playing in Brazil’s Serie A, not Italy’s by then.
At Milan he only once played more than 30 matches in a league season during his five campaigns spent there.
When fit he had a sound goalscoring record in a tough league for strikers.
In Brazil with Corinthians, and then on loan at Sao Paulo, he has also had spells of good form.
“He could simply have stayed there in Brazil,” Chelsea’s interim manager, Guus Hiddink points out, “but he was brave to come here, to English football, where the tempo is high and there is less time and space on the ball. You must respect that decision.”
Hiddink has spent the past four days assessing Pato’s readiness to contribute to Chelsea’s busy week ahead, with matches at Watford on Wednesday and against Manchester United on Sunday, and said the player, whose representatives aggressively pursued options in England ahead of the January transfer period, can reboot his career and make good on the promise glimpsed when he was among his country’s most exciting prodigies.
At 26, there is no reason to believe his turn of speed should be eroded, nor the nimble way he can, at his best, turn out of trouble, head up, and size up his shooting angles quickly and with impressive calmness.
“I am curious to see him on the pitch,” Hiddink said.
Milan, his former patrons, will have the same curiosity, as will anybody who recalls Pato’s sweet, speedy goal at Camp Nou from four seasons back.
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