When Lyon finally chose to sell Alexandre Lacazette to Arsenal in the summer, they were aware they were losing one of their greatest assets. The homegrown striker had just notched 100 Ligue 1 goals for the club, reaching the mark in his final appearance against Nice, and while they were handsomely remunerated to the tune of €53 million, getting the right player in to replace their hitman promised to be a challenge.
In former Real Madrid striker Mariano Diaz, they appear to have risen to that task, plucking a gem of a goal scorer from the fringes of Zinedine Zidane’s squad and offering him a more regular stage upon which to earn first-team spurs.
So successful has the 24-year-old been since moving to France, scoring nine times and fashioning two more in 12 league outings, there has been speculation that Madrid might wish to re-sign him in a bid to combat their own goal scoring troubles.
Lyon have moved to dismiss suggestions that there is a buy-back option in his contract. Already his arrival at Parc OL for just €8m appears a masterstroke from a club built around a reputation of shrewd business in the transfer market.
Mariano is a very different striker from Lacazette, whose willingness and ability to take the ball in to feet offered a more rounded aspect to his game. The Spaniard, however, is much more of an outright scorer, always seeking to run in behind opponents and not offering the same degree of involvement as his predecessor.
“He’s a real goal scorer,” Lyon assistant boss Gerald Baticle told Eurosport. “When others might want to make a pass, his first idea is to find an angle to shoot towards goal. All his play is in the centre towards goal.
“Of course, with his first touch he has to raise his head more often to take in more information and make better choices. But in individual raids he’s good because he’s capable of piercing the lines.”
As a consequence of his differing style, it has taken some time for him to integrate into the system of Bruno Genesio’s men, and even after three months there are still improvements to be made. That he has managed to be quite so prolific is, therefore, all the more impressive.
But he came with strong pedigree, having been backed by both Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema – one of the Lyon academy’s most illustrious graduates – and Zinedine Zidane, arguably France’s greatest ever player and wildly successful head coach at the Bernabeu.
“In the opinion of Zinedine and Karim, he is a player of a very high level. He’s young, powerful and very ambitious. It would be a great coup for Lyon to sign him, and there would not be too much expected of him,” president Jean-Michel Aulas admitted in June, confessing that OL had been following him for quite some time.
To most, Mariano was something of an unknown quantity, having turned out only 14 times for Zidane’s men, including five times in the Copa del Rey, despite spending five years at the club. In total, he amassed only 302 minutes of first-team football last season, but for Lyon that was more than enough to convince them to take the plunge.
“There was scepticism, which is to be expected because he hadn’t played often in La Liga,” Aulas admitted in September. “But for us, it’s not a surprise, instead it’s confirmation of what we knew he was capable of doing.”
Madrid’s reticence to even retain the striker in the wake of Alvaro Morata’s departure to Chelsea has left them surprisingly short of a goal threat through the centre as Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo toil, yet he is by no means the finished article.
“He’s powerful, he’s got good timing in the air but he has difficulty in small spaces. That’s the most difficult thing for a centre forward: to see them develop quickly and to get away from the marking,” Bernard Lacombe, Lyon’s record goalscorer and a close ally of the president, told L’Equipe after Mariano had been successfully nullified by PSG.
Nevertheless, Mariano has his eyes set on a new goal – the World Cup finals. His only international appearance came for the Dominican Republic in a friendly against Haiti in 2013 when he was still a teenager, but he has since thrown himself firmly behind the Spain cause.
“It’s a season before the World Cup, and going there would be magnificent. I’ve not yet spoken to coach Julen Lopetgui but I know I’m being watched. There’s nothing concrete yet, though,” he told Le Progres. “The Dominican team contacts me often, but I’ve chosen Spain and I want to be called.”
If he keeps going as he is, he will be impossible to ignore.