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James Rodriguez could have been so much more at Everton

James Rodriguez and Everton always had an air of summer romance about it. His arrival was the best way to encapsulate the buzz and clamour surrounding Carlo Ancelotti’s version of the Toffees. A big star with an even bigger social media following and image, particularly in his home nation of Colombia, but with the need himself to kickstart his career. They both needed each other.

There was a great start, in the North London sun at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Rodriguez ran the show on his debut and inspired a 1-0 victory; injuries had taken their toll and he was no longer the player who won Player of the Tournament at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, who Real Madrid spent £72million on but his brain was still sharp and that superseded his clear physical decline. Everton had a talismanic figure on their hands, the symbol of a brand new era after years of false dawns and searching for a philosophy to believe in, was this the real deal?

It was painfully obvious how critical Ancelotti was to the entire operation, though. The Everton manager had managed and taken James Rodriguez under his wing at Madrid. The Italian’s style has always been relaxed and about giving his star players, of which he has seen many across a glittering career, the perfect conditions and platform in which to perform.

Short of some early consistency issues for Rodriguez at the Bernabeu, their combination seemed like the perfect storm. They later linked up again in Munich, at Bayern, so if there were the opportunity to reunite a third time at Goodison Park, it would be the natural cause.

Less than a year later, the situation everybody knew and understood became public when Ancelotti agreed on a shock return to Madrid. It was an opportunity few would ever turn down, even if Los Blancos’ glamorous shine has faded somewhat in recent years. However, it left plenty of people in limbo, chief of them James Rodriguez, who later admitted in an interview that he only joined Everton because of Ancelotti. Without him, he wouldn’t be there.

The situation was immediately ominous, well before he spoke out. It was made worse by the identity of Ancelotti’s Everton successor, Rafael Benitez. Coincidentally, he was the man to step into Ancelotti’s shoes at Madrid in 2015, when Rodriguez a key part of the set up and at the peak of his powers. Like Ancelotti, Benitez has a reputation for winning trophies all over Europe and is an elder statesman of the game.

Minus the controversy swirling around because of his history with Everton’s cross-city neighbours Liverpool and the suggestion that belts would have to be tightened to comply with Financial Fair Play regulations, there was very little reason not to be optimistic that Everton were still heading in the same direction as they were under Ancelotti.

But Benitez works very differently. His methods are far more rigid, meticulous and even robotic, far from conducive for getting the best out of a player like Rodriguez, who is seen as a free spirit and needs the right level of individuality to thrive. The pair were on a collision course at Real Madrid — where Benitez’s approach was heavy criticised and saw him sacked after just seven months in charge — and that was the beginning of the end for Rodriguez, who failed to see eye-to-eye with Zinedine Zidane, the next man in charge, either.

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While in terms of statistics and reputation, Benitez’s arrival softened the blow for some fans and players, it will only have exacerbated the Rodriguez issue. Even under Ancelotti, as time went on, it became clear he wasn’t fit or consistent enough to show anything other than flashes of his genius.

Events since have taken a predictable turn and it has almost felt scripted. James Rodriguez has been notably absent from anything on the front line at Everton, and even infuriated fans by admitting he wasn’t aware of their opening day opponents before adding, without any true sense of sincerity or investment that he hoped they’d win. It was a far-cry from the previous year, when he lit the touch paper for talk of Champions League football — the long term obsession for Everton dating back to the days of David Moyes.

Benitez can never be described as particularly warm when it comes to the way he speaks about individuals. He is as functional in his man-management as he is in his tactical appreciation. But even he has been noticeably distant when asked about Rodriguez and his chances of featuring for the first team any time soon. He was part of a group forced to isolate due to a Covid-19-related incident but since then he has been available. Benitez says he’s been behind everyone else in training; despite the evidence that he could offer something to the side, it long felt as though the romance is dead. In the end both parties just wanted it to end.

It was announced yesterday that James Rodriguez has officially left Everton in order to join Qatarri side Al Rayyan. It is the fans who will miss out heavily. Rodriguez is a player of genuine star quality, the type only few clubs are lucky enough to acquire and not the type the average Everton die hard will have ever witnessed in blue before. That they never got the chance in the flesh, not in full capacity anyway, having been forced to watch from a distance last season due to pandemic restrictions is a crying shame.

That a move to Qatar appeals more than knuckling down in the Premier League, even in the circumstances, is a sad, but completely fitting finale to this saga. This has been the archetypal example of a player only joining a club because of the manager, and it has ended in tears. James Rodriguez should have been the darling of the Gwlayds Street end, and the beacon for a glory-filled error for Everton. Sadly time and real-life circumstance never did suit a magical, windswept love story.



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