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First Boca, then the Bernabeu: Real Madrid target Palacios is ready to take Europe by storm

8:00 am AEST 1/10/19
Exequiel Palacios River
The 20-year-old wonderkid has long been linked with the Merengue and could be available for just €15 million in the January window

Were it not for a number of unfortunate, untimely injuries, Exequiel Palacios would probably already be starring at the highest levels in European football.

Real Madrid's loss is River Plate's gain, though, and the Millonarios are delighted to keep counting on their midfield wonderkid as Tuesday's Superclasico Copa Libertadores showdown with Boca Juniors approaches.

Palacios will not turn 21 until Saturday, when the dust will already be settled on the first leg of this hotly-anticipated semi-final at River's Monumental.

But, despite his tender years, the native of Famailla, Tucuman – a town in the north of Argentina famous principally for its empanada meat pies – is an old hand when it comes to competing among the continent's elite. He is closing on 100 appearances with River having made his debut at just 17, while he also has four national team caps as part of Lionel Scaloni's renovation plans.

It was in 2018 that Palacios really came to prominence. A reserve midfielder at the start of that year, he quickly broke into Marcelo Gallardo's plans on the right side of River's mobile, intense engine room and made himself indispensable on the way to that infamous Libertadores final showdown against their Superclasico enemies.

The youngster started both legs in the Bombonera and then the Bernabeu as River took down the Xeneize after extra time. His incredible rise was confirmed with a place in El Pais' prestigious Best South American XI, one of five Millonarios to be chosen by the Uruguayan newspaper.

That Libertadores run coincided too with protracted transfer talks involving none other than Madrid. The Merengue were keen to take the youngster as early as January 2019 and, while the transfer failed to go through at the start of the year, it seemed a given that Palacios would be moving away over the European summer.

“I met with Florentino Perez because I saw him in the [Bernabeu] stadium. It is possible for Palacios to go to Real Madrid but he is in no rush, nor are we, nor are Madrid,” River director Enzo Francescoli signalled back in January. “It is on track, but in the future.” Palacios himself also revealed that Inter were among the teams interested in his signature.

Two setbacks, however, poured cold water on the transfer talk. In February 2019 Palacios somehow managed to complete all 90 minutes of his side's 2-0 win over Racing Club with a leg fracture, an injury that kept him out of action for more than two months. Then, just as the youngster was working his way back into form – and having won a spot in Scaloni's preliminary Copa America squad – a hamstring tear caused him to spend most of the transfer window in the treatment room.

Concerns he would struggle to return from that blow cooled interest over the summer, and River in any case were in no rush to sell in the midst of another Libertadores campaign. It has perhaps proved a blessing in disguise for Palacios, who continues to star having regained full fitness and is playing in a more advanced, creative role than previously.

His starring role in Argentina's 4-0 friendly thrashing of Mexico in September showed just what he is capable of doing at his best. Palacios teamed up with Inter's Lautaro Martinez to dismantle El Tri, coupling his brilliant passing range and eye for team-mates with that tireless intensity that makes him the first line of defence at River, relentlessly harrying defenders to recover possession as soon as possible.

A stunning goal against Huracan once back from international duty only served to confirm Palacios has put his injury worries behind him. “I am pleased with the form I am enjoying,” he told reporters. “I did well with the national team and then I came back and had a great game against Huracan. I felt good. Everything is a little easier with the help of my team-mates."

Palacios is a new breed of mobile No.10, as effective without the ball as when he is in possession, and thus should have no problem stepping up to the demands of the game across the Atlantic. The first priority is Boca, of course, and then a prospective Libertadores final should River advance; but a transfer in January 2020 now appears a near-certainty.

What is more, the all-action midfielder could prove the bargain of the transfer window. His transfer buyout fee is set at a measly €15 million (£13.3m/$16.4m), small change for the likes of Madrid and Inter; and as River president Rodolfo D'Onofrio revealed recently, that is unlikely to move. “Our intention was to try and raise it, but when the player and his agent do not want to accept a higher clause we can't do anything,” he lamented to Fox Sports, suggesting that 2019 will be Palacios' final year at the Monumental.

Tuesday's semi-final will almost certainly be observed with some interest by the likes of Madrid and Inter, seeking further confirmation that their target has what it takes to succeed. There should be little room for doubt, at this point, however: Palacios is the real deal, and it will not be long before he is taking Europe by storm.