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Football's most underrated player? Mascherano looking to win over home fans with move to Estudiantes

11:00 AM GMT+4 17/01/2020
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The former Barcelona, Liverpool and Argentina mainstay has never received the credit he perhaps deserves during his long, trophy-laden career

Two Champions League titles. Five La Ligas. Four World Cup campaigns and 147 caps for one of the most competitive national teams on the planet. More than a decade starting for two of the world's biggest football institutions. Javier Mascherano's CV makes for enviable reading.

It is curious, then, that at 35 the midfielder turned defender rarely gets the recognition he merits, both in Europe and his home nation of Argentina. El Jefecito is looking to set the record straight at least for the latter, as he closes out his glittering career at Estudiantes de la Plata following a spell in China.

Even at his peak, Mascherano was always an under-rated figure. His famously ferocious fighting spirit often masked an intelligence and awareness on the pitch that marked him out as a star - not to mention his versatility.

The boss of Liverpool's midfield after moving to Anfield in 2007 following that bizarre, borderline-illicit transfer to West Ham which unleashed a storm of anti-third-party legislation, his chances of making his name once Barcelona came calling nevertheless looked slim.

As good as Masche was at his prime, with the imperious trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta ruling the roost in midfield, his time at Camp Nou could have turned out to be a frustrating debacle. But the Argentina captain was unbowed.

In one of the most successful footballing transformations of the last decade, he emerged as a central defender of some quality, forming a brilliantly effective partnership with Gerard Pique to ease the pain of Carles Puyol's retirement.

He was the tireless terrier that played the perfect foil for the more languid Pique, charging out of the back to break up opposition attacks before they had even begun and get Barca moving back up the field.

At international level he showed similar grace in stepping aside as captain in 2011, respecting then coach Alejandro Sabella's wish to install Lionel Messi as the Albiceleste's standard-bearer. But he continued as Argentina's unofficial leader on the pitch and put his body on the line time and again for his nation – literally so in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals when a last-ditch tackle on Arjen Robben caused him to suffer a ruptured anus.

Only Lionel Messi, Phillip Cocu and Dani Alves sit ahead of Mascherano in Barca's all-time ranking of foreigners with most appearances for the club. But his exit for Hebei China Fortune provoked a rather muted reaction among fans, and his last outing on the world stage at the 2018 World Cup shortly after that Camp Nou exit ended on a negative note, exhausted and outrun in the Argentina midfield as Kylian Mbappe and France rolled over the Albiceleste on the way to the last eight.

“Maybe I should have left [the national team] after the final with Germany and everything was the colour of roses,” Mascherano reflected to Fox Sports at the start of 2019, six months after that 4-3 defeat spelled the end of his international career.

“But I am not like that. I wanted to keep playing for the national team.

“I accept that because football is like that: from one day to another everything can go from good to bad. Football has given me much more than I deserved.”

That disappointment in Russia marked a bridge too far for El Jefecito. Jorge Sampaoli's decision to field in the engine room a player whose best position for years had been further back was little short of suicidal, and so it proved against Les Bleus' lightning-quick line-up. But he has lost nothing of his tactical astuteness and may prove a valuable defensive asset for his new side, who even in 13th place still harbour Superliga title aspirations lying six points off the crowded summit with seven games left to play.

Mascherano's return to Argentina with Estudiantes sees him link up with several familiar faces. 2010 World Cup colleague Juan Sebastian Veron is president of the La Plata club, while he played alongside coach Gabriel Milito with both Barca and Argentina.

On the pitch, meanwhile, he will find both friend and foe: veteran goalkeeper Mariano Andujar was Sergio Romero's deputy for both the 2010 and 2014 campaigns and new defensive colleague, Chile's Gonzalo Jara found himself twice on the winning side against Masche in consecutive Copa America finals.

Almost 15 years have passed since the 35-year-old last appeared in the Argentine Primera Division. The interceding years have been good to him: titles in BrazilSpain and a host of near-misses with his country as he and Argentina repeatedly fell just short of glory.

He could have finished his career in the relative comfort of the United States or Qatar, or continued in China. But Mascherano's goal is the Superliga, and the prospect of leading Estudiantes to the top.

If he does succeed in bossing the Pincha defence, starting next week with his prospective debut away to San Lorenzo, the no-nonsense, indomitable enforcer might just begin to receive the plaudits that have unjustly eluded him for much of his time at the top of the game.