By Andy Hall
Salva Ballesta's last-gasp winner for Málaga CF against Athletic Club Bilbao on Sunday strengthened his claim for inclusion in Iñaki Sáez's Spain squad for UEFA EURO 2004™. With 16 goals under his belt already this term, he is the second top scorer in the Primera División.
The Seville-born striker joined Sevilla FC aged 19, but after a solitary first-team appearance was loaned to Segunda División B side, Écija Balompié, where he scored six times in 17 appearances. He returned to Sevilla for the 1996/97 campaign, when he endured relegation followed by a season out of the top flight.
In 1998, Real Racing Club Santander signed Salva to boost their attack in a bid to stay in the Primera División. Mission accomplished, Salva duly broke the club's scoring record with 27 goals in his second year at El Sardinero, 1999/00 - including a run of five in five games. That figure earned him the prestigious Pichichi trophy for La Primera's leading marksman.
Back in Segunda
Meanwhile, fallen giants Club Atlético de Madrid were about to embark on their first spell in the Segunda División in 60 years. Having sold Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Atlético's new coach Fernando Zambrano chose Salva as the man to lead his team's charge. Twenty-one goals made Salva top scorer in the second tier but could not help Atlético gain promotion.
Disgruntled with life in the Segunda, Salva accepted an offer from Valencia CF where he picked up his first medal - the Mestalla club winning their first league title in 30 years during his first season there, 2001/02. But things did not run smoothly for the player, who struggled to emulate his goalscoring success of previous campaigns. A reputation for gaining red cards in crucial games did not help either, and Salva found himself out in the cold.
With scant chances of making a return to the Valencia front line, Salva switched to Málaga on loan last summer. After a shaky start, he finally got off the mark with the winner in a 3-1 victory against RCD Espanyol on 28 September. Since then, he has registered another 15 goals, including strikes against his former clubs Racing and Valencia.
The 28-year-old now believes he is the No9 Spain coach Sáez has been looking for. "To wear your country's shirt is the best thing that can happen to a player," said Salva, who won the first of three international caps against Poland in January 2000. "
To be able to represent Spain in Portugal would mean everything to me."
Sáez has taken note and hinted that like Espanyol's Raúl Tamudo, both Salva and Fernando Morientes could be put to the test in the pre-tournament friendlies against Denmark, Italy and Andorra. "It's difficult to score so many goals in such a short space of time," said Sáez. "We are in the last third of the season and [Salva] is still in top shape physically. He has a chance."
The striker's return to form has also been noticed by Valencia, who are seriously considering bringing him back from Málaga next season. Chairman Jaime Ortí said: "Salva is an important player for Valencia, and next season we will need to count on our star players - Salva is one of them."
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