Villarreal midfielder Santi Cazorla believes he is almost back to his 'very best' after his career was nearly ended by injury.
The 34-year-old left Arsenal in May last year, having not played for the Gunners since October 2016 after a series of Achilles surgeries – one of which preceded an infection that put him at risk of having his foot amputated.
He joined Villarreal for a third time after his departure from the Emirates Stadium and has made 35 appearances across all competitions this season, scoring six goals.
Cazorla has described his return to first-team action as a 'difficult journey' but now feels like he has been able to put his injury nightmare firmly behind him.
"I worked really hard to recover my best form," he said. "Recovering my best form has always been my only target, otherwise I would have retired.
"You never know how you feel until you're back in really competitive games, and game by game I've been gaining my best form. I've been playing more and more minutes until I forgot about my injury and my performances on the pitch improved.
"Nowadays I'm really close to my very best. I still have margin for improvement, but I never thought I would have got back to this level one year ago.
"Now I value everything much more. I enjoy each training session and every time I board the coach to reach the stadium, I remember the bad moments I lived through and what a difficult journey it was to go back to playing football."
Villarreal find themselves in the thick of a relegation battle and are just one place and four points above 18th-place Celta Vigo, who they visit on Saturday afternoon (Sunday morning AEDT).
Cazorla admits that they have underachieved this season but believes there is still a chance to end the season on a positive note, particularly given there is a UEFA Europa League quarter-final against neighbours Valencia on the horizon.
"It has been a difficult season," he added. "There were very high expectations and the squad was built to fight for a European spot next season. Instead we're fighting to avoid relegation.
"We've now improved and it seems that we've got the right attitude, but there are still many games to play and we're not safe yet. On the other side, we're doing well in Europa League, where there is less pressure and we're playing much better."