Liverpool's players aren't just earning rave reviews in the Premier League at the moment. One of the youngest members of their squad has captured the imagination of pundits in Spain, earning comparisons with an all-time La Liga legend.
Tiago Ilori has yet to feature for Liverpool since signing from Sporting Lisbon for around £8million on summer deadline day. The arrival of Mamadou Sakho in the same transfer window, coupled with the consistent form of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure, has denied Ilori any opportunities to impress in competitive action, and persuaded Brendan Rodgers to send him out on loan.
On 20 January 2014 Ilori moved to Granada on loan until the end of the current season. And he immediately impressed in his debut gainst Espanyol, looking composed on the ball and aware in his positioning, even venturing forward on a few occasions to get his head on the end of crosses. But this first outing was nothing compared to his home debut against Real Betis.
Ilori wowed the Granada fans at Los Cármenes yesterday with a pin-point long ball to set up striker Piti to score the only goal of the game. It was the only mark of genuine quality in the game, and afterwards the Spanish press were quick to deliver a glowing verdict.
Spain's biggest sports paper, Marca, ran its match report with the headline El pase a lo Koeman de Ilori que dio la victoria al Granada [the Koeman-style pass from Ilori which gave Granada victory]. In the article, the reporter said that Ilori "delivered a long pass in the purest style of Koeman" to set up Granada's win. Praise indeed.
In case anyone has forgotten, Koeman was the lynchpin of the great Barcelona and Holland sides of the late 80s and early 90s. Operating as a sweeper, he orchestrated attacks in the manner of Franz Beckenbaeur and became renowned as a free-kick specialist, winning the 1992 European Cup final with a 25-yard piledriver at Wembley.
In truth, Ilori is a very different player from Koeman. He is a quick and agile player, and usually features as a conventional centre-back, whereas Koeman swept behind. Yet his superb distribution of the ball means the comparison has merit, and could offer something different to Brendan Rodgers' squad next season.
In modern-football, the ball-playing centre-back, capable of starting attacks and making the extra man in midfield, is a must – Gerard Pique, Mats Hummels and Rio Ferdinand have all refined this particular discipline into an art form. Ilori has a long way to go yet, but he looks to have all the attributes to join this elite band.