Two stops before the Estádio do Dragão, there’s a station on Porto’s metro called Heroísmo. Granted, it’s probably not the way James Rodríguez gets to work, although one can imagine him, if he weren’t a footballer, standing in line at the ticket machines, his back-pack on, topping up his Andante Azul card.
Even so, Heroísmo seems like the right place to start in discussing Rodríguez. Acts of heroism have been his forte on the pitch this season for Porto. After last Wednesday night’s magnificent performance against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, the newspaper O Jogo printed the headline: “O Incrível James.”
Its inference couldn’t have been more pointed.
With “The Incredible Hulk” sold to Zenit St.Petersburg for €60m at the beginning of September, Porto’s succession planning had once again worked. To be clear, Rodríguez isn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement for Hulk. True, they have both played on the right wing for Porto, but it’s enough to glance at their contrasting physiques—one lightweight, wiry and boy-like, the other heavyweight, muscular and manly—to realise as much.
What they do have in common, however, is that they’re both match-winners.
It was Rodríguez who got the breakthrough against Paris Saint-Germain and deservedly so following his own display and that of his team. For almost the entire game, Porto had thrashed the visitors 0-0. That in itself was quite a surprise. Before the match, coach Vitor Pereira had made a lot out of how Porto, at least in spending terms, couldn’t be expected to compete with Paris Saint-Germain.
He said: “Porto are a club that normally bases its scouting system around recruiting quality young players, who then have to be sold when they reach a new level. So the team has to be renewed to keep winning titles. That is the way the club has been run. Paris Saint-Germain are in a hurry to win titles and have lots of money, so they are two different ways of winning silverware.”
Each club is entitled to their own philosophy, of course, but on the night, the Porto model looked to be the better approach to building a team and achieving success. As one of the “quality young players”, Pereira described, it must have been of great satisfaction and validation to see Rodríguez score the winner in the 83rd minute. Not that Porto need it, of course. They have been doing this consistently for years.
Still, Rodríguez’s goal was one to savour. It came about when the other outstanding performer on the night, João Moutinho floated in a cross from the left-hand side. Fernando flicked the ball on with his head and it fell to Rodríguez in the inside right channel of the penalty area. Without hesitation, Rodríguez curled a shot on the half volley around the onrushing Mamadou Sakho and beyond diving goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu into the bottom left corner.
“[The goal] was beautiful,” Rodríguez claimed. “I’ve already scored some important goals and this was definitely among the most important.”
The 1-0 victory it sealed, Porto’s second in a row in the Champions League this season, merited consideration as one of the club’s finest European nights since Porto won the Europa League under Andre Villas-Boas in 2011. “Today we were true to ourselves, to our identity,” Pereira explained afterwards. “We showed quality in attack and security in defense.”
On the one hand, the game was won by virtue of Porto’s width, particularly on the left flank, where winger Silvestre Varela and full-back Alex Sandro in cahoots with Moutinho exposed Paris Saint-Germain’s narrowness. On the other, the performance came down to the role Rodríguez played. Although his starting position was out on the right, he was given license to come inside and, for all intents and purposes, act as a No. 10 should the opportunity present itself.
Because Porto have what Pereira calls “an open triangle” in midfield with Fernando holding and Moutinho and Lucho González in front on either side, there’s space for either winger to appear in behind striker Jackson Martínez. It’s in this position that Rodríguez has excelled, so much so that Pereira has come under pressure to change his system and play him from kick-off as an outright No. 10. No fewer than 75.2% of readers polled by Maisfutebol favour the change.
Before Sunday’s clássico between Porto and crisis-hit Sporting, Rodríguez was named Player of the Month by Portugal’s Players’ Association ahead of Benfica duo Eduardo Salvio and Lima. A lob from outside the box against Olhanense, two assists and a goal at home to Beira Mar, another assist away to Rio Ave followed by the Paris Saint-Germain display had done the convincing.
Porto, once accused of suffering a Hulk dependency, are now said to be developing a similar reliance on Rodríguez. It’s a sentiment Pereira has been quick to reject in the interests of the collective. “Porto was not just Hulk or just James,” he insisted. Yet Rodríguez played a decisive role again during Sporting’s trip north to the Dragão on Sunday night.
While Jackson Martínez opened the scoring with a goal of the season contender early on, controlling a Danilo through ball with his knee and then flicking an audacious back-heel past goalkeeper Ruí Patricio all in the same movement, Rodríguez was the one who put the game beyond Sporting. Awarded a soft penalty in the 85th minute, he succeeded where Lucho had failed earlier by converting from the spot to procure a 2-0 victory that keeps Porto top of the Primeira Liga.
It won’t be long before offers land on president Pinto da Costa’s and general manager Antero Henrique’s desk for Rodríguez. Last week La Gazzetta dello Sport claimed Inter had made inquiries during the summer while they were negotiating for Alvaro Pereira. The failure to sell Ricky Alvarez was thought to have scuppered a prospective deal, but even if they had managed to raise some funds, it seems unlikely that they would have been able to meet Porto’s asking price considering that within the contract renewal Rodríguez signed a year ago is a release clause worth €45m.
Should an interested party satisfy that demand one day in the future, Porto stand to make another huge profit on their initial investment. Signed from Banfield in Argentina for €5.3m two years ago, the 21-year-old—who has gone on to inherit the Colombia No. 10 shirt worn by his idol as a child growing up, Carlos Valderrama—should, if not next summer, then the one after that, add to the colossal figures Porto have made from transfers in recent memory, which, according to some estimates, is more than €500m in less than a decade.
With that in mind, it’s a wonder that the metro to and form the Dragão isn’t on a gold line serviced by a money train.