Eric Bailly has the talent and ability to reach the top with Manchester United
Manchester United are interested in 22-year-old Villarreal central defender Eric Bailly, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence since making his debut in La Liga back in October 2014.
Bailly's fee is expected to be around £30 million but one thing that would need sorting out is the role Bailly's former club Espanyol will play in any transfer. The Ivorian had played only five first-team games for the Barcelona-based side when Villarreal swooped to sign him two years ago.
Manolo Marquez was the coach who gave Bailly his debut as a professional footballer and he spoke exclusively to ESPN FC about the defender who was a key part of Villarreal's fourth-place finish last season.
"The Spanish agency Promo Esport organises trial games in Africa and Eric was spotted in a game in his native Ivory Coast," recalls Marquez. "His talent stood out straight away and Espanyol offered him a youth contract. It was very difficult for him to leave his family and move to Spain, but he did it."
Bailly arrived in Catalonia with no Spanish-speaking skills or papers that would permit him to play football.
"He wasn't allowed to play in any official matches for two years," says Marquez. "He could only train and play in friendlies. He was 15, late to football and match experience would have helped, but he had no papers."
As soon as his papers arrived, 18-year-old Bailly was given his debut for Espanyol B.
"Eric was ready to play at 16," recalls the currently out-of-work Marquez, who specialises in youth player development. Eric is strong, very strong. He was very aggressive, good in the air and could use both feet. He's fast and excellent in one-on-ones. He gets forward to support attacks and my worries about him were limited to his tactical sense. He could be too confident in his own ability and lose the ball when he was the last man in defence. He did this last season and Fernando Torres stole the ball off him and Atletico Madrid won 1-0.
"Eric was a very pleasant boy," continues Marquez, who still keeps in touch with his former player and spoke to him last week. "He was very shy, but a great young professional. He lived in the residence with Espanyol's other young players and became a B team regular. We knew him as Eric Bertrand. Bailly was from his name from his mother's side and he chose to use that name later. We played one preseason game at Palamos and my daughter Carla had her photo taken with him. I told her keep the photo because he was going to be a famous player one day."
After 21 games for Espanyol B, playing in a team where young players earn around €1,200 per month, Bailly had made so much progress that first-team coach Sergio Gonzalez felt confident to award him a debut in La Liga when he was only 20. Espanyol boast a superb youth system, a football factory on the banks of the River Besos in a working-class barrio by Barcelona's ring road.
Bailly made his first start in January 2015 in a 1-1 home draw against Villarreal, who were quick to realise what a formidable foe they were up against. He then played three games against Levante at home, then Barcelona and Rayo Vallecano away.
Villarreal had seen enough and put a €5 million offer for him to replace Arsenal-bound Gabriel Paulista. Bailly has been booed in games at Espanyol since and been accused of being a "mercenary" by fans, but that is unfair because, while there was great reluctance to let him go given the absolute conviction that he would become a star, Espanyol needed the money.
Bailly's life was moving fast. He was given an Ivory Coast debut ahead of last year's African Cup of Nations. He did enough in two friendlies to play in the tournament and started all six games as the Ivory Coast reached the final, where they drew 0-0 with Ghana after extra time.
When Wilfried Bony and Junior Tallo missed the first Ivorian penalties, things didn't look good but the Elephants' next six players all scored before Bailly stepped up in the ninth round, barely three weeks after making his debut. He scored and, two more Ivorian goals later, he and his teammates were crowned champions of Africa.
Back in Spain, Bailly had a tough start with Villarreal, with whom he had signed a contract until 2020. Even in 2015-16, his first full season with the Yellow Submarine, he was not always an automatic starter as he competed with fellow central defenders Mateo Musacchio, fellow former Espanyol youngster Victor Ruiz and former Italian international Daniele Bonera.
"Villarreal's coach Marcelino is very good for Bailly because he's tactically astute," explains Marquez. "But he rotated his central defenders until finally settling on Eric. When I spoke to Eric and he was frustrated that he didn't play in the Europa League semifinal second leg at Liverpool against his friend Kolo Toure. Villarreal missed him; they needed his physical presence against a strong Liverpool team. I think he could have made a big difference because he was so good last season that he was linked with a move to Barcelona.
"I'm absolutely convinced that he'd be a success in England," adds Marquez. "He's similar to Sergio Ramos and while he's not as good technically, he's much stronger. I was surprised when Man United gave Jose Mourinho the job -- I don't think it's the right decision -- but Mourinho would be good for Eric because Mourinho always has his defences very well organised. He's also the type of very strong defender which he likes to work with."
United's interest in Bailly is real and, according to the man who gave him his professional debut, so is the Ivorian's talent and ability to reach the top.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.