Llorente, Osasuna’s new hope

It was a pivotal moment in Sunday evening’s match between Osasuna and Barcelona. Having led the line industriously and scored the only goal of the game, Joseba Llorente came off to the rapturous applause of the El Sadar faithful. Seconds later, Sergio Busquets was robbed on the edge of his own area and Llorente’s replacement Nino squandered a glorious opportunity to extend Osasuna’s lead. Within 10 minutes Barcelona had swung the tie around thanks to two goals from Lionel Messi.

Yet, while Osasuna may have ended the match empty-handed, there was plenty of encouragement through the manner in which they not only nullified Barcelona but created a range of opportunities. At the apex of Coach Jose Mendilibar’s well-crafted counter-attacking unit was loan signing Llorente, who has overcome low expectations since his arrival earlier in August.

At 32 and on the back of a goalless season with Real Sociedad, it was not the type of signing to set pulses racing in Pamplona. As well as filling the boots of gangly youngster Ibrahima Balde, who recently joined Kuban Krasnodar for €3.8m, fans were doubly concerned after the earlier departure of last year’s top scorer, midfielder Raul Garcia, back to Atletico Madrid. That pair contributed 22 Liga goals – half of Osasuna’s total for the season – and last weekend a flat performance in the 2-0 defeat against newly-promoted Deportivo only served to heighten anxiety.

Then, Barcelona arrived deploying plans to thwart the veteran striker, who had scored four times in seven games against them. It only took until the 16th minute for Tito Vilanova’s strategy to unravel when, with the angles and height of Roland Lamah’s deep cross fighting against him, Llorente expertly squeezed the ball into the thin gap between Victor Valdes and his near post. It was his first goal since January 8, 2011 and the inevitable relief of breaking his duck energised his performance. His pressing unsettled a midfield that did not get a foothold of the game until his substitution. In his 68 minutes on the pitch he engineered another three attempts on goal, having mustered only 12 in the entirety of the previous campaign.

The faith placed by the passionate Mendilibar in Llorente – a classic confidence player – has made a significant impact. Under Real Sociedad Coach Philippe Montanier, the striker started just once during the 2011-12 season, whereas already in Pamplona the attacker exudes greater conviction in his abilities.

“It's good that the Coach knows how I play and the club has invested in me. That gives you confidence and strength”, he recently stated.

Indeed the performance was reminiscent of Llorente’s heyday with Real Valladolid and Villarreal. That helped to bring Villarreal regular European football and, if the veteran can recapture that kind of form throughout the season, Osasuna fans will fancy some of the same.