And lo, as had been predicted for the last two weeks, it has come to pass: Ikechukwu Uche is indeed on the move from Villarreal to Mexico. The player himself tweeted he has signed a deal with Tigres (Monterrey); while I have not seen anything this evening giving financial details, expectations were Villarreal would receive a transfer fee somewhere in the €3.5 million range.
Though a native of Nigeria, Uche has spent his senior footballing career in Spain, starting with Racing Ferrol at the age of 18. He played with Recreativo Huelva as part of the 2005-06 club that gained promotion (his breakout season, with 20 goals) and the 2006-07 club (8 goals) that finished eighth in La Liga--both coached by Marcelino Garcia Toral.
However, it was during Garrido's tenure that Villarreal obtained him. Uche was purchased on the last day of the summer 2011 transfer window from Zaragoza in a €5 million deal, and immediately loaned to Granada. It seemed a strange move at the time--a gamble that Uche would return to the player who had found the net seven times for Getafe three seasons ago, before he suffered two knee injuries. And the decision to loan him out meant he wasn't able to help when Giuseppe Rossi went down with a knee injury himself.
At the time Villarreal allowed him to play against us, and he scored the only goal of the match (almost an apologetic tap-in into a wide-open goal, as I recall) to defeat us in El Madrigal early that season; I believe he only scored twice that season.
When Villarreal fell to the Segunda, Uche played a key role in the Submarine's return, notching up 14 goals; but his contribution was overlooked by many, with Jeremy Perbet's 11 goals in 18 matches earning the plaudits of the writers and the applause and shouts from the fans. It didn't help that Uche was unavailable for the last match of the season against Almeria where we won promotion.
The 2013-14 season was Uche's most successful in the Primera, with 14 goals in 30 appearances (19 starts) for the Yellow Submarine--and yet, again, he was overshadowed by another player, this time Gio dos Santos. Uche was actually our scoring leader, but Gio (and Perbet still) seemed to get more love from the fans and more of the headlines.
This season, Uche's output has been down--only 6 goals in the league--and Luciano Vietto and Gerard Moreno have generated more of the transfer talk and fans' plaudits. Yet again, Uche has seemed something of an afterthought. And again, not totally fair given his injuries in the latter part of the season, but there you go.
Uche has always been a frustrating player for the Villarreal fanbase, difficult to appreciate in some ways. Most of his goals have seemed to come from speed and positioning--being in the right place at the right time, rather than a special gift for finishing. He's always been a workmanlike player, without a lot of flair.
Can you remember a special Uche goal? Gio, you certainly can--last year against Valencia, that screamer. Vietto--turning Godin around like a top before beating Courtois. Perbet--the last-second goal against Levante last season. Uche? I honestly have a hard time remembering his goals, except for the miskick off a corner this year that found the net, or maybe the goal against Gladbach where he scored and was injured at the same time. Uche's contributions were important--no denying that--but for a guy who was your leading scorer in two seasons, it's surprising how little one remembers.
At his best, his ability to work hard for 90 minutes created dangerous opportunities; at his worst, he found it difficult to control the ball (and his body, apparently, judging form how often he lost his footing) when facing really physical opponents in the final third. He has had matches where as soon as the ball was at his feet you knew nothing of consequence would happen. But when he is on a hot streak, you felt the opposite.
But just as with Perbet last summer, Villarreal has ultimately looked at Uche, figured they should try to upgrade the position, and moved him on. His move frees up salary (€1.8 million/year), brings in some cash, and creates an opportunity for Villarreal to bring in some new blood up front.
It's a great move for Tigres, who signed Gignac from Marseille today as well. I wouldn't be surprised if the two of them partner each other very well, but I also won't be surprised if Gignac gets more of the headlines. It just seems to be Uche's fate that way. But we at Villarreal USA will remember him and his contributions to Villarreal's success, and we now wish him well in Liga MX. We'll miss you in yellow, mon!