|Europa League group stage: Villarreal v Rangers|
|Venue: El Madrigal Dates: 20 September Time: 17:55 BST|
|Coverage: Listen to BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website|
Villarreal midfielder Santi Cazorla has been deprived of 668 days of his career during an agonising two years in which he had 11 operations.
The former Spain international has been ravaged by an Achilles injury since October 2016 – one that not only threatened his career, but also his ability to walk.
But now Cazorla is fit and expected to face Rangers in the Europa League on Thursday, having returned to the club where he made his name after six years with Arsenal.
Here, the 33-year-old tells BBC Sport about bacteria “eating” eight centimetres of his ankle tendon, his “magical” unveiling at Villarreal, and his excitement at facing “idol” Steven Gerrard.
‘For me, it was just an ankle strain’
Cazorla can pinpoint the moment his torment started. It was September 2013 and he was playing for Spain in a friendly against Chile.
An innocent kick broke a small bone in his ankle. Painful, but not enough to prevent him playing. Not initially, at least.
After a few months, the midfielder began to “suffer pain every day” until deciding he “just could not carry on” during a Champions League fixture against Ludogorets Razgrad in October 2016.
“I was no longer enjoying it,” he tells Football Focus. “I just didn’t feel like playing at all. So I decided to stop and find a solution. I didn’t know it meant I would be two years out of the game.”
His first surgery came two months later. Another 10 followed, with one leading to gangrene and Cazorla being told he should be “satisfied” just to walk again. There were even fears he could lose a leg.
The final operation came in May, when the former Villarreal and Malaga player had his Achilles reconstructed, with doctors grafting skin from his left arm – featuring a tattoo – to his right ankle.
“They’ve put skin from my arm on my ankle, and from my thigh on my arm. So whenever I get asked what’s happened to me, I end up saying it’s like a little jigsaw, parts of my body all over the place,” he says.
“It’s not the usual sort of injury that you get in football, where bacteria is working away and eating away eight centimetres of your tendon… for me it was just an ankle strain.
“There were loads of moments where I was on the point of saying ‘I don’t have the strength to carry on’. But the people by my side made me change my mind because they believed I would play again.”
‘I’ve got unfinished business at Arsenal’
Cazorla does not “attach any blame” to Arsenal for his two years of torment.
Indeed, he says he will be “eternally grateful” to the club and to former manager Arsene Wenger, who extended his contact for a year while he was injured.
“Arsene said he’d never seen an injury like it,” Cazorla says. “And my doctor in Spain said he’s never had a case where two different bacterias eat away at eight to 10 centimetres of an Achilles tendon.
“If the bacteria had been identified and contained from day one, not even half the things would have happened that did eventually happen.
“But I’ve been left with a feeling of unfinished business because I’d always said that if I ever had to leave I would say my goodbyes in front of the fans, because they have always treated me incredibly well.”
Hello again? Or abracadabra?
After it was announced he would be leaving Arsenal in the summer when his contract expired, Cazorla had planned to do pre-season at the club as he waited for offers.
However, Villarreal gave him the chance to return to a side with whom he spent seven seasons across two spells and the chance “to be home” was too appealing to turn down.
“When I left, it was more a case of ‘see you later’ than ‘goodbye’,” he says. “They’ve made it possible for me to enjoy football again and it would be impossible to repay the kindness they have shown me.”
And rather than ‘hello’, his return was more a case of ‘abracadabra’ as Cazorla was unveiled by a magician.
An empty capsule on the El Madrigal pitch filled with smoke and, once it cleared, there stood the grinning, diminutive midfielder.
“The magician, Yunke, is a genius,” explains Cazorla, who had to do a practice run the day before. “I made a deal with him. He said, ‘Santi when they ask you about the trick, don’t give anything away!’.”
Cazorla’s next contribution on the stadium’s turf was a La Liga meeting with Real Sociedad in August – “the acid test; there was a little bit of fear” – and since then he has made two further starts.
Finishing matches is still beyond him, and he is still playing through pain, but he is simply thrilled to be living the life of a footballer again.
“Now I see football in a different way,” he explains. “Before, I didn’t appreciate being in a hotel, the coach journey to the stadium… but I fought really hard for two years to have these moments again.
“I try to enjoy it and take advantage of every second because I don’t know how long it will last.”
‘Gerrard is an idol of mine’
Cazorla’s return to European competition will come in Group F of the Europa League, starting with Thursday’s visit of Rangers.
Steven Gerrard’s side came through four qualifying rounds to reach the group stage and face Rapid Vienna and Spartak Moscow, as well as Villarreal in their section.
But for Cazorla, it is the chance to renew acquaintances with the former Liverpool captain which is exciting him the most.
“Steven has always been an idol of mine, since I was a kid,” he said. “The second game I played in the Premier League was in Liverpool and I asked him for his jersey and I’ve treasured it since.
“The fact he’s coming here as manager of Rangers makes the game more special for me because I’ve always looked up to him. Apart from the games against Villarreal, which I hope he loses, I wish him well.”
You can watch the full interview on Football Focus on BBC One on Saturday from 12:00 BST.