Somewhere out there, in one of the trillions of different universes that split off every time a new decision is made, there is a reality where Eliaquim Mangala sits astride the defensive titans of this age, having enjoyed a trophy-laden career filled with excellence.
And if you squint, it’s possible that in this alternate universe, he’s wearing a Chelsea kit. “City or Chelsea? Chelsea because it is London,” Mangala said back in May 2014, when he was a piping hot property at Porto, coveted by anyone with a need in central defence, chased by half of Europe. “Every player wants to play in the biggest clubs. I am an ambitious player and the team that can help me win titles is the one that interests me.
“My goal now is the World Cup. We will see what happens after that. I told [my agent] Jorge Mendes that I don’t want to know anything about the transfer window until then.”
Mangala did indeed go to Brazil with France, although he didn’t make an appearance as they lost to Germany in the quarter-finals, but if only Mendes had extended that transfer window silence to the rest of us. Mangala was a constant presence that summer, reaching that level of transfer rumour saturation that would make anyone who had never seen him play assume that this guy was Franco Baresi, the saga of his potential move rapidly becoming as tedious as it was apparently complex.
When it did happen, Mangala moved to Manchester City, not Chelsea, in theory pegged as Vincent Kompany’s long-term central defensive parter. So long did it all rumble on that the general vibe among City fans when it was eventually all confirmed was something along the lines of: “He’d better be good after all this.”
Hmmm. Yes. About that. Not a lot has gone right for Mangala from the day that he signed for City, going from merely bad to comical at the Etihad, spending a season on loan at Valencia, another at Everton (when he played just twice), before returning to City where Pep Guardiola became increasingly averse to the idea of even playing good centre-backs, so he stood not a chance.
Last summer he finally left permanently, signing permanently for Valencia which, after his less than stellar loan spell there, was a little like test-driving a car, its wheels falling off and engine dropping out, but buying it anyway. He’s missed the majority of this season with a knee injury, making only three league starts, two in November and one last weekend against Atletico. Now though, he’s set to play in Valencia’s Champions League game against Atalanta on Sunday.
But it’s not as if his terrific form has forced him into Albert Celades’s thinking. On the Totally Football Show European edition this week, our Spanish expert Alvaro Romeo explained:
“They’re going to have a massive problem in the centre of defence. Ezequiel Garay is out until the end of the season, Gabriel Paulista is suspended for two games and picked up an injury against Atletico. So Valencia will play with Mouctar Diakhaby, who is an alright defender, and Eliaquim Mangala, who has been as catastrophic sometimes as he was for Manchester City.”
To stand out as that bad despite having played only thrice is quite a feat. But is this is his big chance? Is this his last chance? After problems with injuries and awful form, is Mangala ready to come back now? He certainly sounds psychologically ready. “This injury allowed me to discover myself,” he said earlier this season. “I totally learned to let go. I may shock some, but ultimately this injury is like a blessing.”
It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Mangala really, once the most sought-after defender in Europe, a brilliant career stretching out in front of him, now a punchline and a last resort, what should be his peak years gone in a fug of incompetence and misfortune. It wasn’t supposed to be like this for him, but perhaps it’s not all over. Somehow, he’s still only 28, after all.
Mangala will line up for Valencia against Atalanta because there is quite literally nobody else. But only the coldest heart wouldn’t hope that his story has some sort of uplifting ending. Perhaps Mangala can still be a fine player, in this universe.
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