Manchester City’s relentless pursuit of star names did not abate in the last transfer window. Roberto Mancini’s first summer transfer splurge totalled an estimated outlay of £120 million. Their transfer dealings may have been scoffed at by some but they have been cited as title contenders by old foe Gary Neville. Their latest acquisition though is a departure from their expected stance. Earlier this month reports circulated that the club had signed former Barcelona midfielder Gai Assulin on a free transfer. A new contract at the Camp Nou could not be agreed but a knee injury had scuppered a speedy summer switch to the Premier League. Mancini is purportedly satisfied with his fitness and an official announcement of his capture is imminent. As an attacking wide player sporting a shock of dark long hair he has been dubbed the ‘new Lionel Messi.’ The more pertinent question for City fans is whether this ex-Barcelona player will be more of a Cesc Fabregas than a Giovani Dos Santos.
The Israeli international spent seven years in the Catalan capital, progressing through the club’s youth and reserve sides. The player who had previously been of the books of Hapoel Haifa has earned Spanish citizenship, thereby negating the need for a work permit before coming to England. The 19-year old footballer’s contract expired this summer and his renowned agent Pini Zahavi commented, “the decision not to renew Gai’s contract was mutually taken by us and the club.” His progression had been curtailed by injury and accordingly the promising youngster never featured in a league or European match for the senior team.
However the midfielder, who previously had a £34 million release clause in his contract, appeared a natural candidate for promotion to the senior ranks. Assulin had periodically glistened in the 2007/08 season when FC Barcelona B won the Segunda División B. An inexperienced Josep Guardiola masterminded this triumph and the Israeli was a player expected to join him on the bigger stage. Yet in Guardiola’s inaugural season as first team manager Assulin was unavailable for the entire campaign after sustaining knee ligament damage. He returned to fitness last summer and made an appearance in a pre-season friendly against Tottenham at Wembley Stadium.
His stock had waned particularly when compared to fellow young prospects such as Pedro. He too had featured in that table topping youth side but is now a Spanish League, Spanish Cup, Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and World Cup winning player. Assulin’s appearance and skills had invited comparisons with the team’s mercurial Argentinean superstar but having played alongside Pedro, he must have been cursing his luck. He was due to have a trial at Blackburn Rovers last month but failed to attend, wanting to hold out for a more ambitious team. He found that club in the same region.
Whether or not his grand label is befitting of his talents, what can the Eastlands crowd expect of this attack minded midfielder? The ambidextrous Assulin can play across the midfield and forward lines. Blessed with a natural skilfulness and pace, the young starlet’s Youtube highlights convey that he is adept at taking on defenders with an impressive close control. His formative development has been hampered by injury which arguably points to an adaptation period in City’s reserves before any first team chances arise. Assulin’s arrival has coincided with the club’s conciliatory reaction to UEFA’s financial fair play initiative. Assembling the best, young emerging talent at minimal cost could be a sign of things to come.