Eto'o the complete can make Mourinho blue

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The Independent Online

La Liga's top scorer, Samuel Eto'o, enjoys being in demand. It wasn't always so. Nobody was waiting to meet the Cameroonian, who was crowned African Footballer of the Year for the second year running on Friday, at Madrid's Barajas airport when he first arrived eight years ago.

La Liga's top scorer, Samuel Eto'o, enjoys being in demand. It wasn't always so. Nobody was waiting to meet the Cameroonian, who was crowned African Footballer of the Year for the second year running on Friday, at Madrid's Barajas airport when he first arrived eight years ago.

Real Madrid had recognised the precocious talent of the prodigy who played in Cameroon's second division at 13 and offered him a trial. Eto'o set off alone; ready to take on the world. He was 15. He wasn't to know it, but this neglect was to be typical of Madrid's attitude, up until they agreed to relinquish their 50 per cent share in the player so that he could move from Mallorca to Barcelona for £20 million in August 2004.

Strikers either wither or thrive in Barcelona: thrive on the service and opportunities afforded by Europe's most attack-minded team, wither because of the pressure. Eto'o has prospered. "It's my job to score goals," is how he bluntly describes his task.

Chelsea, Barça's Champions' League opponents on Tuesday, have few shortcomings, yet a goalscorer as prolific as Eto'o is one. Perhaps that is why the Premiership leaders have twice tried to buy him. "Chelsea tried to buy me in 2003 and 2004," offers Eto'o. "My friends Claude Makelele and Géremi are there, but I only wanted to join Barça and I don't regret my decision. Barça have a great history."

Eto'o is familiar with Jose Mourinho's team and the Premiership. "People in Cam-eroon love watching English football. It used to be Arsenal and Manchester United who won trophies, but now Chelsea have the money from the Russian to buy a strong team. I watch them on TV, I can see they are strong, but we are not afraid of them."

Eto'o harbours no ambition to play in England, but he rates two Arsenal legends in his top three players, alongside Ronaldo. "Thierry Henry is a true great, and Ian Wright..." His voice trails off in awe. "I loved Ian Wright. He was one of the few strikers who could resolve any situation. His son plays for Manchester City, you know..."

Like Wright, Eto'o is more than a goalscorer, at least according to the Barcelona coach, Frank Rijkaard. "I consider him as a striker who comes from the midfield, rather than a Van Nistelrooy, who is a man of the box. Eto'o is a more creative player. He drops back to retrieve the ball and he dribbles too. He's unique for a striker, but the most important thing is that when he sees moments of need for the team he doesn't hesitate to help. He even comes back and defends."

It is goals which have won Eto'o recognition, though. Goals from inside and outside the box, screamers from beyond the area, goals scored with feet and head, and penalties. The critical goals Barça need if they are to lift their first league title in six years.

A year ago, Barça's sublime collective looked to Ronaldinho for the decisive strikes. Now Eto'o is the man. "It's simple," says the young right-back Damia: "He shoots, he scores, and we win."

Eto'o's journey from street football in Cameroon to the Camp Nou has been difficult, even after he signed for Real, who loaned him to the second-division side Leganes in 1997. He went to Espanyol, and twice to Mallorca, where he is still idolised.

Yet until this season club football was overshadowed by his international career. At 17 years and three months he was the youngest player at France 98. At 18, he was already an African Nations' Cup winner after carrying a team of veterans to victory. A gold medal in the Sydney Olympics followed, before his goals for Mallorca started to attract attention. Now, more Barça fans put Eto'o's name on their shirt than any other player, Ronaldinho included. Not that there is any professional jealousy. "Sammy is a fantastic player and a very good friend," gushes the Brazilian. "We're trying to make him the best goalscorer in the world."

It's a double act that has delighted fans, a chemistry that if it ignites against Chelsea on Wednesday will leave Barça's former assistant, Mourinho, a little greyer.

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