Argentina's most recent World Cup qualifiers proved a breakthrough for one of the nation's most promising talents. Having cut his teeth in the unforgiving climes of the second-tier Nacional B back home, this left-footed star has pushed his way into the Albiceleste starting line-up and is now dreaming of both a glorious Champions League run and a pivotal role at Russia 2018.
Paulo Dybala? Not quite. The player in question Sporting's 25-year-old wideman Marcos Acuna, who is now looking to consolidate his success with Argentina by causing a massive Champions League upset at the expense of Dybala and Juventus.
Few would have guessed at the start of 2017 that it would be Acuna, not Dybala, soaking up the plaudits in Argentina. The native of Zapala, a wind-swept city of some 35,000 inhabitants in the heart of Patagonia, had a similar football upbringing to his fellow small-town hero, coming up through the ranks at Ferro in the Nacional B and locking horns with Instituto's teenage wonderkid in that notoriously punishing division.
Dybala, however, caught the eye with his goals and incredible talent at the tender age of 18, and was on the way to Serie A with Palermo at the end of the 2011-12 season. Acuna had to wait a little longer for his chance.
The versatile left-sider, who began his career at full-back before moving up the pitch, stuck with debt-ridden Ferro until 2014, when he was recruited to play alongside newly returned Diego Milito at Racing Club. Acuna lifted the Primera Division title in his very first season with Racing and, by the time Sporting came knocking in June this year, was already considered one of the finest talents playing locally in Argentina.
In Portugal, the man known universally back home as 'Huevo' (Egg) has picked up right where he left off in Argentina. Four assists in nine outings for Sporting has seen him become that rarest of beasts amongst his countryman, someone who can create goals and not just tuck them away.
In the international ranks, too, his tireless effort and Exocet left foot – not to mention an admirable versatility – have seen him carve out a regular place in the Argentina team since making his debut back in March away to Bolivia. It was Acuna's cross which forced an all-important equaliser against Venezuela when all appeared lost, and right now it is he – not the frustrated Dybala – who appears more likely to make a splash at the World Cup next June.
If he does make Russia, he will have done so the hard way, as at every stage in his career.
As a teenager, he spent four years making the gruelling 2,700km round trip to Buenos Aires to trial with the capital's top clubs, only to face rejection after rejection. River Plate, San Lorenzo, Boca Juniors, Argentinos and Tigre all passed up on the youngster, who was ready to give up all together before he landed a trainee contract at Ferro.
Even then, his travails were not over. He was mugged three times in his first months in the big city, and again thought of returning to the safety of his hometown.
“People don't realise the effort we made to get here. Behind every player, there is a story of sacrifice,” he told El Grafico, and few will now begrudge the squat, determined wideman the success that was so long in coming.
In strictly utilitarian terms, the Albiceleste right now need more Acunas than Dybalas. In his handful of appearances the former has already appeared on the right and left wings, and at left-back, the position where Jorge Sampaoli is more likely to utilise him as a solid yet attacking partner to Angel Di Maria on that flank.
Dybala, meanwhile, has looked lost so far in his international forays, failing to click with Lionel Messi. “It is tough to play with him,” Dybala admitted in a recent interview, “because we play in the same position. But, in any case, I will have to adapt to him and make him feel comfortable.”
With Messi, Dybala, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi to name a few, Argentina will never have trouble filling the forward spots. Further down the field, however, is a different matter.
The nation has struggled in the last decade to field first-class defenders, particularly out wide since the dynamic duo of Juan Pablo Sorin and Javier Zanetti hung up their boots. In Acuna, it seems that one part of that puzzle might just be solved, making his performances over the coming season of paramount importance to Sampaoli, as well as Jorge Jesus in Lisbon.
On Wednesday, Sporting start as rank outsiders against Juventus, who, in Dybala, have one of the most talented youngsters around in world football. But with Messi showing no sign of slowing down, it is the Bianconeri No.10 who may have to wait for his turn to shine with Argentina until after the World Cup, while Acuna looks set to consolidate his role as Sampaoli's roving full-back in Russia and beyond.