When Giovani Lo Celso gathered the ball on the edge of the Lille ‘D’, there appeared to be nothing on. He had spun neatly onto a pass from Lassana Diarra to open up the home side’s goal, yet faced with a wall of players, the prospect of creating something from the situation looked slim.
Nevertheless, he shuffled the ball out of his feet before placing the most beautiful, delicate chip over Mike Maignan and into the net. The home goalkeeper had strayed to the edge of the six-yard box, allowing the Argentinian just enough room to loft a shot over him.
It was a special way to open his account for Paris Saint-Germain.
“We scored two lovely goals, but I think his was the more beautiful,” Neymar conceded after the match, having smashed in a terrific free-kick of his own only minutes earlier.
Lo Celso’s goal spoke volumes of the self-belief that has grown in the 21-year-old in recent weeks.
“I was full of confidence,” he told Canal+ after the match. “There was a chance to pass to Ney, but I decided to shoot and, thankfully, it went in.”
His rise at Parc des Princes over the last few months has been a remarkable one. Signed from Rosario Central for around €10 million only a year ago, he mustered a mere 82 minutes of Ligue 1 football in his first half season in France, inevitably leading to questions of whether he could stick it out.
But while Goncalo Guedes was offloaded to Valencia on loan to make room for Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, Lo Celso was retained and has been rewarded for his persistence.
An injury to Thiago Motta opened the door for more regular opportunities, and he has grasped it with such relish that he has been habitually selected ahead of Javier Pastore and Julian Draxler in the centre of the field.
“He’s an excellent example,” head coach Unai Emery said in January. “With patience, he has worked every day in training. To begin with he wasn’t in the squad, then he played five minutes, then 10.
“He’s won the right to be here. He won the respect of his team-mates, then the coach and then the fans.
“He’s very focused, very involved. He plays to improve, to adapt to the position that the team demands. That’s why, as a sentinel, he’s at a very good level. We now have a very important player for us in the squad.”
Perhaps that is the most remarkable thing about Lo Celso’s rise, that he has been deployed as a No.6 and has thrived in what is more traditionally a role for a more physical style of player.
Standing at just 5ft 9in, he brings a very different dimension to the role than Thiago Motta, yet he works in harmony with Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot, who are more naturally tigerish players in the centre of the pitch than a man who was signed with the intention of being an attacking option from that area.
Quietly, he has been one of the revelations of the season in France and has started all of PSG’s last seven Ligue 1 matches.
He has yet to start in the Champions League, despite picking up two assists in only 65 combined minutes across the group stage. Nevertheless, with Thiago Motta still struggling through injury, few would bet against him starting against Real Madrid in little over a week’s time.
It would be an honour he has earned.