Out of the Champions League but still keeping up the pressure on Barcelona in La Liga, Atletico Madrid close out 2017 on Saturday with mixed feelings after perhaps the most difficult start to a campaign that Diego Simeone has ever experienced as coach.
The Colchoneros have, however, identified the man who can bring a smile to fans' faces: Lautaro Martinez, the sensational Argentine striker whom they hope will become their answer to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Over the course of a stellar breakout 2017, perhaps the most fearsome opponent Martinez had to face was the left-hand post at the visiting end of Racing Club's El Cilindro home. The 20-year-old star hit the same section of woodwork no less than three times towards the end of the year; it denied him an equaliser in his club's Copa Sudamericana quarter-final against Libertad in the dying minutes, as well as the chance to level an Avellaneda derby won by Independiente.
In Lautaro's last game of the year, too, the post interceded to deny him a stunning goal during his man of the match performance against Gimnasia. He would finally get on the scoresheet by smashing home a rebound after seeing a penalty saved, having already assisted Lisandro Lopez and set free Matias Zaracho with a perfect crossfield pass that led to to his side's opener.
Creator, provider, scorer: the game was a perfect showcase for the all-round skills that have led the youngster to be linked not just with Atletico, but with the likes of Arsenal, Real Madrid and Dortmund over the course of 2017. But Martinez feels most comfortable in the area Atletico are desperate to reinforce: as a natural centre-forward, preying in the penalty box like Ronaldo.
He is far from the first promising Argentine forward to come out of the Primera in recent years. Atletico alone have snapped up fellow Racing graduate Luciano Vietto as well as Angel Correa, to mixed results. The pair have been intermittently successful at the Calderon and now Wanda, but seem too lightweight, too fragile to occupy the danger zone in the way a Ronaldo or Luis Suarez can. Martinez, though, does not appear to share that problem.
The forward has packed on muscle since the start of the season, perhaps taking advantage of an enforced lay-off with a metatarsal break to hit the weights with extra zeal. As a result he cuts a powerful figure on the pitch, equipped not just with the skill but also the strength to hold off encroaching defenders. When a marker does manage to wrestle possession off him, it is usually through illegal means – a phenomenon that would only be increased in Spain, where referees are far less tolerant of physical contact than the warzone that is the Primera.
His stats, meanwhile, speak for themselves. Martinez has smashed in four goals in just six Primera games since returning from injury, a tally that adds to the eight he hit in 12 starts after establishing himself in the Racing first team at the beginning of 2017, as well as another seven in 11 for Argentina Under-20s. Those strikes, moreover, have come not for teams coasting at the top, but in a Racing struggling desperately for form. If given regular service and a quality team built around his talents both on the ground and in the air – like Ronaldo, an impressive percentage of Lautaro's goals come from headers – there is no reason to suspect why he cannot continue to torment defences in La Liga.
Simeone, however, may have to bide his time. "The plan is to stay [at Racing] until the middle of the year, I spoke it over with [Racing] president Victor Blanco, my family and my agent," Martinez signalled to TyC Sports as details of a supposed €12 million deal began to filter through the press.
"The plan is to play the Copa Libertadores. We will work out the contract issue, but that is the plan."
Martinez also revealed that he is in contact with Simeone, who knows the Racing set-up well having spent time at Avellaneda as both a player and coach, and is indeed an Academia fan. "He called me, we spoke about his projects, that he has decided to stay at Atletico, what the club was," he added.
"Also the expectations they had, because he knew some directors were over to work everything out."
The end of the current season may spell the end for Antoine Griezmann at Atletico, a move that would cause great upheaval at the Wanda. Fernando Torres too is on the verge of exiting the club, while Diego Costa moves the other way as his long-awaited transfer is completed. Martinez, then, would initially play a similar role to his current Racing position, playing off the more stationary Costa at Atletico as he did for Lisandro Lopez in El Cilindro to such great effect against Gimnasia.
The future for the youngster, however, could be even brighter still. Quick, strong, brilliant in the air and acutely aware of all that happens around him, Martinez inevitably brings to mind a young Ronaldo – and the Real superstar will be the blueprint to follow whenever he seals his switch to La Liga.