Argentina’s problems at youth level were once more laid bare with a disastrous first round exit from the 2017 Under-20 World Cup. The talent is still there, however, as young Arsenal and Valencia target Lautaro Martinez proved why the European giants are keen to seal his signature.
It is fair to say that Argentina’s hotshot forward enjoyed rather mixed fortunes in South Korea. The Racing Club wonderkid was tipped as one of the stars of the tournament after shining with five goals in this year’s South American Championship, but endured a disastrous start when he received a knee to the face during the Albiceleste’s warm-up clash against Vietnam.
Originally diagnosed with a frankly horrific-sounding ruptured windpipe, on further examination Martinez’s condition was revised to damage to his nasal cartilage. His World Cup saved, he started on the bench in the opening grudge match against England’s young guns – only to see red shortly after entry for a flailing elbow, winning him the dubious distinction of being the first man ever to be sent off thanks to video technology.
Suspended for the subsequent defeat against South Korea that left Argentina facing almost certain elimination, he went into the last game of Group A with a grand total of 18 World Cup minutes under his belt. Finally, however, he had the chance to show what he was capable of. Martinez doubled Argentina’s lead early over Guinea in a must-win game with a stunning turn and shot and notched another late on in a resounding 5-0 victory.
That win was not quite enough to grab the Albiceleste a place in the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams, but it cheered the hearts of fans who had become exasperated at the side’s inability to turn dominance of possession into goals in the opening two fixtures.
Followers of the Argentine Primera Division will not be at all surprised at his forcibly brief star turn. Martinez took full advantage of a knee injury to Racing legend Lisandro Lopez at the start of 2017 to become an automatic choice in the Academia attack, teaming up with Gustavo Bou to devastating effect. In eight appearances this year he has smashed six goals, leading his team to the brink of Copa Libertadores qualification with just four games to go this season.
Martinez’s exploits are also challenging what has become accepted football wisdom over the last few years: that playing with two out and out centre-forwards is an exercise in futility. In tandem with Bou at Racing, or Boca starlet Marcelo Torres in international colours, the 19-year-old is the image of a modern No. 9, moving across the defensive line in search of opportunities, pushing hard on the diagonal and creating chances out of nothing.
He boasts a cool head in front of goal for someone so young, but also possesses perhaps an even rarer, more important attribute – the ability to shrug off a bad miss and make amends as soon as the chance arises. In that sense, and coupled with his admirable ability in the air and impeccable physical attributes, it is impossible not to see an air of the young Cristiano Ronaldo in his play.
“Martinez is a player who is already settled and he has no limits to his potential,” Argentina U-20 coach Claudio Ubeda, who also trained the youngster in the Racing reserves, said after beating Guinea. The question is, where will he realise that incredible promise? The number nine holds special significance for the player: not only is it his place on the field, but also the value of his release clause. €9 million for a player of his ability sounds too good to be true, and the likes of Arsenal, Valencia – who have a first option on him – and Fiorentina would be more than happy to pay out.
Racing, meanwhile, will move mountains to keep their teenage superstar in Avellaneda, particularly with the second half of the Copa Sudamericana potentially occupying them after August – Martinez and fellow Argentina man Brian Mansilla were jetted home early after elimination in order to play Wednesday’s first round, second leg against Aguilas in Colombia. But they may be fighting a losing battle. Forwards of Martinez’s quality do not appear every day, and his fleeting World Cup cameo will only increase interest in him as the transfer window rolls into action.