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Just Watch: Diogo Jota

Whether using his feet or his thumbs, Diogo Jota is one of the smartest operators around – but can he pull Portugal from the World Cup abyss?
Thu, Mar 24, 2022

Early last year, Diogo Jota was the world’s top-ranked player of FIFA 2021. Yes, that’s right, the video game played passionately by many millions of humans. The Liverpool and Portugal striker is leading an amazing double life: when he isn’t training and playing football at the very highest level, he is playing the digital equivalent at the very highest level.

It seems significant that he needs no imaginative escape from the game. Some elite footballers claim they don’t even watch football on TV. Many of them need to detox from the game during their free time – with quiet, meditative pursuits like golfing, shopping for Bentleys or Instagramming their hairdos. Not Jota. Nearly his entire waking existence is wall-to-wall football, whether physical or virtual. Thankfully, he does have a wife and baby daughter to add flashes of human warmth to his life.

The intriguing thing is that all that gaming seems to be helping his performance in his day job: he claims it has sharpened his tactical insights in the physical dimension, and who are we to disbelieve him? Since his arrival in 2020 from Wolves, Jota has shown himself to be one of the craftiest footballers in the English Premier League.

He reads the game like a comic strip. His nose for space and time in the penalty area is jackal-sharp: he haunts those elusive gaps between defenders and fullbacks with uncanny consistency, and seems to anticipate exactly the square metre of turf at which a cross (usually sent from the golden instep of Trent Alexander-Arnold) will arrive in the box.

Jota is also brutally good in the air, despite his modest height – he times his leaps with apparently computerised precision. And he is lethally proficient with either foot, a priceless asset for any forward – as a result he can play out wide on either wing, or in the No. 9 role. And at 25, Jota is only getting better.

Liverpool splashed out 45-million pounds when they signed him from Wolves – a very good price, it turned out, but at the time it seemed generous. He’s probably worth double that today. As things stand, Jota ranks as one of the top 10 goal scorers in the European game.

And when he wears a slightly different shade of red, Jota has the potential to succeed the fading force that is Cristiano Ronaldo as the business end of the Portuguese national team. To date, he has been deployed on the flank for Portugal with Ronaldo raiding up front, but he has all the tools to flourish as a centreforward in due course.

There is danger afoot for Portugal, though.  On Thursday night, they take on Turkey in the first knockout fixture of their World Cup qualifying campaign. It was a minor shock that Portugal finished second to Serbia in the group phase of the qualifiers, necessitating an awkward playoff route to Qatar 2022.

The Turks are chronic underachievers given the power of their league and the depth of their talent base, but they are quite capable of finally realising their potential and sinking Ronaldo and company. Beyond that hurdle, the terrain gets even tougher. Even if they do prevail on Thursday, Portugal will likely have to confront mighty Italy in the playoff final. (The Azzurri only need to defeat North Macedonia to advance).

This golden generation of Portuguese talent never seems to end, with emerging talents like Jota, Joao Felix and Renato Sanches boosting a grizzled red-and-green machine that are credible World Cup contenders if they can navigate this frightening late passage to Qatar. Jota’s bleeping football brain could guide them through it.

  • Watch Portugal v Turkey, Fifa World Cup qualifying playoff, on Thursday at 9.30pm, SuperSport 203