Davies back but not at full speed
Sochaux has struggled in preseason and are candidates for relegation
Sochaux coach Gillot feels that Charlie Davies is still not close to pre-injury form
Davies won't start the season as a starter and faces a fight for playing time
Charlie Davies had three days off last week so he went to Rome with his girlfriend. They ate pizza and ice cream, and did what tourists normally do in the Italian capital: a trip to the Vatican, walking up the Spanish steps and then, at the Trevi fountain, throwing in a coin and making a wish. It does not take a genius to guess for what Davies might have wished: 10 months after the car accident that nearly ended his career, the U.S. forward is hoping for a starting place in his French club Sochaux's season opener a week on Saturday.
Davies has yet to score for the first team in any of its preseason friendly matches, but he's not alone. Sochaux has three other senior forwards -- Vaclav Sverkos, Ideye Brown and the recently-signed Modibo Maiga -- and two youngsters (Edouard Boutin, 19, and Cedric Bakumbu, a European Championship finalist with the France U-19s) competing for two places in the 4-4-2 system and none of them have found the net in five matches (three losses, two wins).
That's partly why coach Francis Gillot, who has performed minor miracles in keeping the club from relegation for the last three seasons, is downbeat about the campaign ahead. "We are not yet at the level required for this league and if we don't bring in some experience, we could be in trouble," Gillot told the French press after a 3-0 loss to German side Freiburg on July 22. Other reasons for the coach's downbeat mood include the departure of star player Stephane Dalmat, once of Inter and Tottenham, to Rennes, and the knee injury to experienced goalkeeper Teddy Richert which has ruled him out for four months.
Gillot has given Davies playing-time: against Evian, Southampton and Strasbourg, and he handed him the captain's armband in a reserve-team match against CFA, in which he scored. "I still have work to do but I'm on the right path," Davies wrote on his Twitter page after the game.
But the coach has pointedly played down expectations of Davies, who made an impact last season in his second Ligue 1 match, with two goals from the bench in a 3-2 defeat to then-champions Bordeaux. "It will be difficult to count on him as he still has some physical limitations and has had to relearn everything," Gillot said after the Freiburg game. "For him, it is also hard but it's clear he is not at the level he was when he joined us."
Those comments will be a huge concern to Davies and his entourage. The player has never stopped believing in himself and has the goodwill of his Sochaux and U.S. teammates, as well as over 60,000 Twitter followers, spurring him on. But if his fitness test results are poorer than they were 12 months ago, and his burst of pace over the crucial first yard is not what it was, as Gillot is appearing to suggest, then Davies will find it hard to get a regular place in this team.
To have even reached this point in his recovery is an astonishing achievement, according to Jacques Crevoisier, the former Liverpool assistant manager who has worked as a consultant to Sochaux for the last six years. "He has worked hard to get here and deserves credit for that," Crevoisier told SI.com. "But to be so close to death and nine months later to come back and play and forget everything that happened, that's a tough thing for anyone to do."
Crevoisier is close to Gillot and visited the team at its preseason training camp in Switzerland. He holds a PhD in psychology and conducts psychological and motivational testing on youth players at the Sochaux academy (he also does similar work for Arsenal). "If you are not strong in your head, you are dead," he continued. "So you must be strong in your head. But if physically you are not 100 percent, even if you are strong in your head, it won't work."
Davies may well accept that he is not yet at his optimum, and Crevoisier is right to credit his mental strength, which has been exemplary, even inspirational, ever since the accident. The likelihood, though, is that Gillot, who only last week signed Maiga from Le Mans as a certain starter, will begin the season with Davies on the bench.
The story could then go two ways: best-case scenario is that Davies becomes an "impact sub," coming off the bench late on and making a difference once the opposition have tired. It's an important role in the team and one he would relish. Worst-case, though, makes for grim reading: Davies stays on the bench or even worse, out of the squad, and as time goes by, Gillot is forced to admit that he has lost faith in the forward.
With one week until the season begins, it's still too early to predict how this one will play out. Sochaux's first match next week is against Arles, another team tipped for relegation. Lose that one, and France Football correspondent Christian Manicourt's prediction "that Sochaux could be in for a long, tough season" may prove prescient. All soccer fans should hope that, at the very least, Davies plays a part in it.