BARCELONA Alexandre Pato reminded the world why he was once the hottest prospect in soccer with a sensational display in Villarreal's 3-1 win at Sporting Gijon on Saturday.
The Brazilian, who signed for AC Milan before his 18th birthday for 26 million euros ($27.16 million) but never fulfilled his potential, was given a standing ovation by Sporting supporters despite being the architect of their team's defeat in La Liga.
Pato, who won the award for best young player in Europe in 2009, was the standout performer in a dominant display by Villarreal and nearly scored a candidate for goal of the season, twisting and turning through the middle and leaving a trail of Sporting players in his wake, only to be denied by goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar.
He made his first tangible mark on the game minutes later by racing in behind the defence to send the ball towards the far bottom corner, only for team mate Nicola Sansone to get the final touch into the net.
Pato looked disappointed at not scoring himself but Sansone made amends by laying on a pass for the Brazilian to tap into an empty net in the 74th minute and round off the victory.
"This is the level we need to demand from Pato as he is an incredible player," said Villarreal coach Fran Escriba. "He was brilliant against Atletico Madrid (in Monday's 3-0 win) and now he has done it again."
Such praise has been rare recently for Pato, who signed for Villarreal for three million euros after a practically anonymous six-month loan spell at Chelsea, where he played just 131 minutes of first-team soccer.
Pato's hopes of success in European soccer looked to have disappeared when he left AC Milan for Corinthians in 2013 after playing 10 league games in the previous two seasons and scoring only one goal, his potential apparently ruined by repeated muscle injuries.
He left as a shadow of the bright spark whom Milan had signed from Internacional in 2007 and who had won the 2009 Golden Boy award, whose previous winners included Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Paul Pogba.
Now aged 27, Pato is unlikely to be mentioned in the same breath as Aguero or Pogba and he has taken his time to make an impact at Villarreal, scoring five goals in 14 starts.
Saturday's vintage display at El Molinon, however, proved he still has plenty to offer.
($1 = 0.9574 euros)