Cesc Fabregas dinked the ball towards Mario Gaspar and as he swivelled, he stuck out his right foot and floated the ball past the hapless Joe Hart. Judging by his reaction it seemed not even he could believe it. Speaking after the game, Fabregas did indeed reveal that Gaspar himself could hardly believe it.
It was a wonderful strike. And what made it that much more special was that he scored it in Alicante, a short drive to Novelda, where Mario grew up as a boy.
Gaspar was barely known outside of Spain but his goal changed everything. The Mail Online dedicated an article to him to inform its readers – all 250m of them – just who was this man who goes by the name Mario and where does he come from.
Novelda is the town but it is with Villarreal where he has established himself as one of Spain’s best right full-backs. Rising up through the youth ranks, Gaspar has never played for another club and, for now, seems happy where he is. And he should be.
Gaspar’s fine form this season has helped the Yellow Submarines re-emerge as a force in Spain. They’re competing for and look a good bet to clinch Champions League football next season. It’s an incredible achievement for a side that only four years ago was relegated to the Segunda Division – only a year after they reached the semi-finals of the Europa League.
Mario has been there through thick and thin. And, like Villarreal, has come a very long way in a short space of time. When the Yellow Submarine were languishing in Spain’s second division, Mario could not even get in the starting XI.
Since their return to the Primera Division, Gaspar has become indispensable and is one of the first names on Marcelino’s team sheet. And like how his goal surprised everyone, including himself, Marcelino too has been surprised by his remarkable rise. “'He is the player who has surprised me the most,” the trainer admitted. “Now he is one of the best full-backs in the League.”
And this is why Vicente Del Bosque has given him a chance to prove himself on the international stage. So far, so very good.
Mario marked his first cap with La Roja with a goal against Ukraine. Then, in just his second appearance, he scored that goal. Two goals from two games is the kind of return expected of a top striker. In total, Mario now has three caps for Spain and is a firm contender for a ticket to France this summer.
But, it will not be easy. Juanfran remains a favourite of del Bosque, even if he has not always been at his best this season. Then there is Dani Carvajal of Real Madrid, whose recent performances show he is getting back to his best. Not to mention Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta, who continues to be as consistent as ever despite his club’s domestic troubles this season.
Amid such company, it is easy to see why Gaspar does face a fight to secure a spot in Del Bosque’s final 23-man squad. But it is a testament to how far he has come that he has been given a chance at all and, moreover, make such an impression. With a strong finish to the season and a little luck, he might just make the cut too and it would be wholly deserved.