There have been some great sporting comeback stories in 2018. In tennis, Novak Djokovic put a chronic elbow problem behind him to win his first grand slam in over two years at Wimbledon, before following that up by claiming the U.S Open. Meanwhile, in golf, a 42-year-old Tiger Woods defeated time, logic and debilitating back pain to win his first PGA Tour title in more than five years.
Watford midfielder Roberto Pereyra may not be a global superstar like Djokovic and Woods. In fact, he points out that – unlike many footballers in England – he doesn’t even like golf, preferring to play cards, pool or listen to his favourite music artist, Ulises Bueno, in his spare time.
However, there are certainly many parallels to be drawn with his story in 2018. Like Djokovic and Woods, Pereyra’s top-level career was being questioned after a succession of injuries that ravaged his first 18 months at Watford, following an £11.5million ($15.2m) transfer from Juventus in the summer of 2016.
He played just 13 times in his first campaign in Hertfordshire due to a knee injury, scoring two goals, before groin and tendon problems further restricted his impact at the start of last season. By the time 2018 rolled around, some critics were beginning to write off Pereyra ever showing the kind of form that made him a star at River Plate, Udinese and Juventus – where he played in the Champions League final.
But in this calendar year, the midfielder has exploded into life to become one of the Premier League’s best players. He has scored seven Premier League goals in 2018. Of the players listed as midfielders by Opta, only Riyad Mahrez (eight) has scored more EPL goals than Pereyra in 2018. The Argentine has found the back of the net more times than the likes of David Silva, Delle Alli, Christian Eriksen and Paul Pogba.
This impressive tally includes three goals in a barnstorming start to the current campaign. He also marked his return to the Argentina squad after three years away by scoring seven minutes into his comeback against Iraq on Thursday.
“I am very happy to start the season like this. I worked hard and prepared myself after the many injuries I have had over recent years,” Pereyra tells Goal. “When I arrived here I had the misfortune of being injured. I lost almost a year-and-a-half of football. Last year, I hadn’t done the pre-season preparation and so I struggled a bit because I would play and then get hurt again.
“But this year I prepared great and then also Watford changed a few things inside the club. Things have been working well and we are all happy.”
Certainly, the appointment in January of Javi Gracia – who replaced Marco Silva – has been crucial in Pereyra’s turnaround. The Argentine is now being deployed in his best position as an attacking left midfielder where he can utilise his searing pace, dribbling skills and guile.
Gracia has also understood that Pereyra is a player of great personality. The midfielder’s “more than 15 tattoos” perfectly symbolise this personality – he is someone who isn’t shy to graft and put his body on the line.
His favourite TV series is ‘Vikings’, which tells the story of the Norse warrior Ragnar Lothbrok. Just like Ragnar successfully raided English land, the aggressive, hard-working and warrior-like Pereyra is also an expert on English football pitches when it comes to stealing possession from enemy territory. This season he is among the top 10 EPL midfielders for ball recoveries, along with team-mates Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
“Javi Gracia has been very important for me,” Pereyra explains. “He understood how I wanted to play and then he instilled his trust in me, which was also very important.”
Pereyra is thus enjoying his football again. He is close friends with Watford’s Italian striker Stefano Chuka Okaka, who interrupts our interview halfway through to play a prank on his colleague.
When asked to pick five footballers – dead or alive - he would invite to dinner, Pereyra includes Okaka along with Diego Maradona, Ronaldinho, the Brazilian Ronaldo and himself. “That would be some party!” he laughs.
The 27-year-old has been pivotal in Watford’s impressive start to the Premier League season. The Hornets won their first four games and should have added more points after dominating for long spells against Fulham (1-1) and Arsenal (0-2). A 4-0 meltdown at home to Bournemouth before the international break has been the anomaly this term and some fans have even dared to dream about European qualification.
“The team has started very well, especially physically, but our first thoughts are about avoiding relegation,” cautions Pereyra when asked about Europe. "But if we continue to do well, in January we will see what is possible.”
What has already happened, though, is a recall to the Argentina national team on the back of his brilliant individual displays.
The 27-year-old had not played for his country since September 2015 but returned to the fold under caretaker boss Lionel Scaloni for the friendlies against Iraq and Brazil. He enjoyed the perfect comeback against the Iraqis, scoring just seven minutes after entering the field in a 4-0 win.
“Due to my bad injuries, many years have passed since I was last selected. I am happy to be back. I worked hard for this and I want to make the most of this moment,” he says.
“It was an objective of mine to return and to help lead my country, but I know it will now be even harder to keep my place. I will continue to work hard for my club so the next call-up arrives.”
The Albiceleste have endured a tumultuous 2018. Their preparation for the World Cup was chaotic and the situation descended into chaos in Russia as coach Jorge Sampaoli appeared to lose control of the dressing room.
Amid widespread reports of a player mutiny, Argentina performed dismally and were eliminated in the second round by eventual winners France, with Sampaoli subsequently paying with his job.
“It was not what we expected from the Argentina national team, given the class and the standard of players that we have,” Pereyra says of the World Cup showing.
“It went badly but we can’t look backwards. There are new players that are joining the national team and we hope to create a good group ahead of the Copa America next year.
“There is lots of young Argentina talent. I like [Exequiel] Palacios, who plays for River Plate. He is a strong midfielder. There is Paulo [Dybala], there is Lautaro [Martinez], there is [Mauro] Icardi. These are strong players who definitely will give a hand to the squad.”
Pereyra reserved special praise for Dybala, who set up his goal against Iraq and with whom he played during his second season at Juventus in 2015-16. The 24-year-old Dybala has developed into one of the world’s most exciting players in recent seasons and is often described as the natural heir to Messi in the national team.
However, the pair have struggled up until now to find space in the same starting XI. As both players are creative, left-footed No.10s who like to occupy the same space behind a central striker, it has been questioned whether the two superstars are too similar to co-exist. Indeed, Dybala even confessed himself last year that “it is not easy to play with Messi because we play the same way”.
Dybala barely got a look-in during the World Cup – playing only 22 minutes as a substitute during the 3-0 defeat to Croatia – and he has still not opened his goalscoring account for his country. But Pereyra has no doubts that Dybala will shine for Argentina.
"Dybala has already shown that he is a great player,” Pereyra says. “With the years he has accumulated [at Juventus], he has gained more experience and now he must continue doing what he has been doing. Definitely, he will reach great heights.
“I believe it is not a problem for Dybala and Messi to play together. They have more or less the same characteristics but them playing together for Argentina would be fantastic. We hope this happens so we can reap the rewards of these two players of great class.”
Messi has announced that he will not play for Argentina again this calendar year but it is expected that he will return for the 2019 Copa America in Brazil in order to have one final shot at winning a major international trophy.
Leo’s failure to lift the Copa America or World Cup has often been cited as the reason why he shouldn’t be considered as the greatest player of all time. However, Pereyra doesn’t accept this theory.
“For me, he is the greatest ever,” insists Pereyra, who also names Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany as the toughest defender he has played against.
“I have seen him play and seen what he does in training. I have not seen anyone else do the same things he does. At Barcelona, he has demonstrated just how great a player he is through everything that he has won and will continue to win.
“He demonstrates his greatness in every game. Even when he doesn’t score, just his presence creates fear. He showed this against Tottenham in the last Champions League game. He scored two goals and made the difference.”
Messi won’t be around to make the difference on Tuesday as Argentina continue their preparations for Brazil 2019 by playing their bitter rivals in a friendly in Jeddah.
But Pereyra will be present as he aims to put the cherry on the cake of a beautiful 2018 comeback story.