Sevilla’s Nzonzi returning to England with point to prove

MADRID (AFP) – If Steven Nzonzi had things his way he might have been facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid in the Champions League last week rather than Manchester United tomorrow (3.45am local time).

The former Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers midfielder has admitted regret at not completing a deal last summer to join Paris Saint-Germain, who are still licking their wounds following a 5-2 aggregate defeat to the reigning European champions.

Born in the northern suburbs of Paris and a product of PSG’s youth system, the transfer back to France had a certain pull for the 29-year-old.

“I’m Parisian, and like all Parisians, it’s nice to play for your hometown team,” Nzonzi told French television show Canal Football Club.

“It would have been a good thing, but it did not happen.”

A tendency for itchy feet has been a recurring theme of Nzonzi’s career, the midfielder handing in two transfer requests in successive summers at Stoke before finally leaving for Sevilla in 2015.

He bade farewell to the Premier League with a thundering long-range strike against Liverpool, in a 6-1 win that was also Steven Gerrard’s final game for his boyhood team.

Steven Nzonzi (L) handed in two transfer requests in successive summers at Stoke before finally leaving for Sevilla in 2015. – AFP

Another meeting with Liverpool, a 3-3 draw in the Champions League in November, looked likely to prompt another move, after a bust-up with coach Eduardo Berizzo led to Nzonzi being substituted at half-time.

“My future is clearly away from Sevilla,” Nzonzi said. “The only thing that disappoints me is the way it has ended.”

But instead, it was Berizzo who left, sacked a month later, and Nzonzi stayed, only to regain momentum and favour under current coach Vincenzo Montella.

“I’ll talk to him to know his state of mind,” Montella said at his opening press conference. Nzonzi has played in 16 out of Sevilla’s 17 games since the turn of the year.

Even at international level, Sam Allardyce was prompted by Nzonzi’s father to enquire whether the midfielder could be eligible to play for England, a possibility ended by a single cap earned for France under-21s. Nzonzi won his first two caps for France’s senior team in November.

Compared in his early days to a young Patrick Vieira, Nzonzi is now looking to cause the kind of havoc the former Arsenal destroyer once regularly orchestrated at Old Trafford.

Nzonzi has no need for extra motivation. As well as being linked with other Premier League teams like Arsenal and Chelsea in the past, he is currently fighting for a place in France’s World Cup squad.

United were second-best for much of the last 16, first leg between the sides at the Sanchez Pizjuan a fortnight ago but a 0-0 draw leaves Jose Mourinho’s side with their noses slightly in front.

Nzonzi had perhaps the best chance of the first leg but his close-range header was tipped over by David de Gea, one of several superb saves he made on the night.

Without an away goal to sustain them, however, United will be vulnerable if Sevilla can finally find a way past the Spanish goalkeeper.

“We had chances, but it could not be,” Nzonzi said after the game.

“We know that De Gea is a great goalkeeper, but we will continue fighting in the next game and we hope to win there.”

Sevilla know too that their run in this year’s Champions League could be their last for a while given a 2-0 defeat to Valencia on Saturday leaves them 11 points adrift of La Liga’s top four.

“We have to forget this defeat and think about the next match. It can be a historic match for the club if we get into the quarter-finals,” said Montella at the weekend.