It was a moment that made every England football fan fight hard to hold back the tears. Jay Rodriguez couldn't display the same restraint as he was stretchered off at the Etihad Stadium during Southampton's game with Manchester City in April 2014. The burgeoning striker was visibly distraught as he watched his World Cup dreams go up in smoke. Having garnered an impressive haul of 17 goals for the Saints that season, he seemed destined to star for England at his first World Cup in Brazil.
However, such is the cruel nature of this game we all love. Rodriguez was deprived of the chance, being forced to watch his compatriots crash out of the group stage as he began his rehabilitation from a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury. It has now been 16 months since that harrowing afternoon in Manchester, but it looks as though Rodriguez is finally primed for a return to action.
It would be easy to forget all about the Saints forward, what with all that has gone on at St Marys since he was ruled out. In the intermittent period, Mauricio Pochettino left the club, to be replaced by Ronald Koeman. Following that, the club made a blistering start to last season, when they managed to maintain a presence in the top-four up until an eventual decline after Christmas. The club's supporters have been assuaged for the absence of Rodriguez by exciting new signings such as Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane, who became a club hero when he scored the Premier League's fast-ever hat-trick against Aston Villa in May.
However, Saints fans were served an emphatic reminder that Rodriguez is still a force to be reckoned with, as he plundered home a fantastic long-range strike against Espanyol on Sunday in Southampton's final pre-season friendly of the summer.
Controlling the ball with his first touch and creating the space with which he teed himself up, Rodriguez whistled home a beautiful drive, illustrating to all those watching that almost a year and a half has not diminished his appetite for goals.
Sometimes when a footballer is facing an extended period on the sidelines, it is important that he surrounds himself with as much positivity as possible, as the thought of watching from the stands begins to eat away at their patience. In Rodriguez's case, he has done being injured in style. Getting married to his long-time partner Simone was a real high-point in a year which saw several professional setbacks. Rodriguez had originally been expected back by Christmas, but suffered a setback in November, which subsequently ruled him out for the remainder of the season.
"With an infection you think the worst could happen," he told the Daily Mail. "In the extreme you could have your leg amputated. That was the darkest moment, around that time. It was hard to take, the setback.
"I was doing everything right, it was just something small and the doctors said I need this surgery to get rid of something that was in the knee. Then it got infected, which took over.
"It was painful. As soon as you get rid of it you've got to start rebuilding your muscles all over again."
Now, Rodriguez is determined as ever to help Southampton continue on the same upward trajectory that saw them finish a club-record seventh-place in the league last year, securing a spot in the Europa League. While Rodriguez was undoubtedly thrilled for his team-mates, he was frustrated that it wasn't his goals firing the Saints into Europe. Now, Rodriguez is ready to close a most troubling chapter in his fruitful career and start entering the thought process of Roy Hodgson once again.
If there were concerns that the severity of his injury and length of lay-off would have blighted him, think again. Rodriguez has actually come back faster, putting him in the very highest bracket of speedsters in the Premier League. Along with his obviously unerring taste for goals, the fight to stay in Koeman's starting line-up may be extremely competitive indeed, with Pelle, Mane, and Shane Long not willing to go down without a fight.
So, a new campaign dawns for Jay Rodriguez and it is likely to be one of the most challenging, yet exciting seasons in the 26-year-old's career. A raft of other England strikers shone brightly last season, including Harry Kane, Charlie Austin, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings. Before his injury, Rodriguez was every bit as promising as the aforementioned quartet. The onus is now on him to re-establish his reputation as one of the foremost finishers in the Premier League. He is more than ready to accept the challenge.
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