Libor Kozak uploaded a picture on his Instagram account on Dec. 5. It was an image of him, wearing the pale blue shirt of Lazio, arm raised in celebration after scoring for the Serie A club.
It was a picture from before his £5 million transfer to Aston Villa in the summer transfer window of 2013; before the double leg fracture which has completely stalled his career; and before he became unfortunate enough to be stranded somewhere between the fringes of the first team squad and the U21s. Villa host Arsenal on Sunday and the 26-year-old is likely to be uninvolved yet again.
Kozak doesn't post often on Instagram -- his previous image was from four weeks previous, toiling away in a fitness session -- and so the message provides a fascinating, if brief, glimpse into his psyche. He's a player who remains on the outside of the first team picture and, like many athletes, finds solace in remembering happier times when the going is tough.
The Czech striker is in his third season as a Villa player and he's played 14 times in the Premier League; only eight of those have been starts. Every Villa supporter knows his unfortunate story. He was signed by Paul Lambert, practically right on transfer deadline day, primarily as a back-up to Christian Benteke and though the squad seemed light in other areas -- notably attacking midfield -- within weeks he was proving his value.
He came off the bench to replace an injured Benteke at Norwich in September and scored the only goal of the game within two minutes. When the big Belgian was fit again, sometimes Lambert paired Kozak with him and further goals followed -- the second in a 2-0 win at Cardiff, one in an excellent 3-2 victory at Southampton. Just before Christmas 2013 came his fourth in a Villa shirt, scored in a 2-1 defeat at Stoke.
Kozak played twice more before disaster struck -- a badly broken leg sustained in training. Comeback targets came and went, complications and further operations ensued. The 2014-15 season was devoted to rehabilitation; a season and a half completely wiped out. Yet he emerged from the darkest of periods to play a full part in the club's preseason programme this summer and with other strikers moving on -- not just Benteke but Andreas Weimann and Darren Bent too -- Kozak appeared to have a fresh chance.
In the build-up to the current season, then manager Tim Sherwood understandably strengthened his striking options by bringing in Jordan Ayew and Rudy Gestede, but with a move for Emmanuel Adebayor falling through and youngster Calum Robinson being loaned out there seemed to be opportunities for Kozak. That hasn't been the case. Despite showing up well in the summer friendlies -- scoring twice against Wolves the notable performance -- he hasn't played a single minute in the league this season. And his only senior appearance came as a late substitute in August's Capital One Cup match against Notts County.
Instead, Kozak has ploughed on, confined in the main to playing for the club's Under 21s. If anything, his current status at Villa is causing nothing but more confusion. He's playing regularly in these games, so he's obviously fit, and he's scoring goals, too -- a late equaliser against Blackburn at the end of November, and two against Derby on Monday. He also started in a recent 5-2 friendly win over Fleetwood alongside other senior players but whereas Jores Okore has since been brought back into the starting lineup and Adama Traore is regularly in the first team squad, Kozak appears no closer to a breakthrough.
At the same time, there was reportedly loan interest in him from Celtic in the summer and most recently from Birmingham City, but the player is still at Villa. If he's not wanted, there were options to allow him to move on. He's also taking up the centre-forward role in what is essentially the reserve team, a place which could go to a promising younger player. The point is, there does seem to be a plan for him. What that is, and when it will be executed, is not clear.
"I have the feeling for many reasons that he could not do better than we are doing at the moment," Villa manager Remi Garde told the Birmingham Mail recently, suggesting that Kozak's immediate prospects don't appear to be bright. Many supporters would question that opinion, though. The team is clearly struggling and obviously not blessed with prolific goalscorers. While Ayew is starting to thrive, Gestede is beginning to look out of his depth and Garde's reluctance (and Sherwood's reluctance before that) to even try Kozak is strange.
The Czech international is a difficult striker to categorise. Though he's 6-foot-2, he's not especially strong in the air -- not like Gestede, anyway -- and he's definitely not quick. But technically, he's quite tidy and his movement is superior to Gestede's. Kozak could work well alongside Ayew and he does seem to have that gift of being in the right place at the right time -- that goalscorer's instinct of sniffing out a chance. Villa desperately need someone with a prolific presence in the opposition penalty area.
He might leave in the January transfer window. Although, he may still be at the club, plugging away in the U21s, come the end of the season -- by which time Villa could be relegated and his contract will be weeks away from expiring. He may not be the answer to the club's goalscoring problems, but surely he deserves a decent opportunity at least? He's been patient enough and worked hard for it.
Whether Garde sees it the same way only time will tell. Jack Grealish, who played alongside Kozak in that U21 game, has been tipped to return to the squad for the fixture against Arsenal, but the double goalscorer will probably be on the outside looking in once again.