Enzo Fernandez River Gimnasia Copa Liga Profesional 13032022Getty Images

Real Madrid & Man City target Enzo Fernandez looks to follow in Alvarez's River Plate footsteps

For much of the past year, Julian Alvarez has by and large been the only player talked about at River Plate and justifiably so.

The striker exploded onto the scene to lead his side to the 2021 Liga Profesional title, and earned himself a multi-million pound move to Manchester City in the process. But Alvarez is not the only gem driving on the Millonario right now.

If anything, 21-year-old midfield sensation Enzo Fernandez has been even more impressive than the City-bound star since the start of the 2022 season. And if he keeps it up, a similarly lucrative transfer will surely not be long in coming.

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Fernandez, who was born in the northern Buenos Aires suburb of San Martin, has spent almost the entirety of his short life in River's ranks. He was just four years old when he first signed for the club and, save for a year-long loan at Defensa y Justicia, has progressed from their infant divisions to the first team in an uninterrupted climb up the ladder.

That loan spell proved a turning point for the youngster. Falling under the tutelage of River legend Hernan Crespo, the teenager became a fixture in Defensa's midfield and played a big part in the club's Copa Sudamericana triumph in 2020, earning a place in the tournament's Ideal XI thanks to his tireless yet elegant play.

“When Marcelo [Gallardo, River coach] told me about Defensa, I took it well because it was a chance to show myself, get some games, compete against first-rate players,” Fernandez explained to Ole.

“I was lucky to be coached by two great trainers like Crespo and Sebastian Beccacece, share a squad with huge players and even better people and pick up two titles which will go down in history.

“I have always been the same player, but my time at Defensa helped me grow so much, not just as a player but as a person.

“I grew up lots and that prepared me to go back to River and adapt in a different way to the team's rhythm.”

Upon his return to River in June last year, and having picked up another continental title along the way after Defensa shocked Libertadores champions Palmeiras in the Recopa Sudamericana, he was ready to star under Marcelo Gallardo.

Fernandez has barely been out of River's starting XI since coming back and by the end of 2021 had another trophy to add to his growing collection as the Millo stormed to their first league win in seven years.

Now he is at the heart of the team, sharing a double pivot with veteran Enzo Perez which is the foundation on which one of South America's most potent attacks is built.

Perez, a member of Argentina's World Cup squads in both 2014 and 2018, sits in front of the defence, scurrying and cleaning up; Fernandez does almost everything else.Fernandez is a box-to-box operator in the purest sense. In Sunday's 2-1 victory over Defensa he opened the scoring against his old club and also struck the crossbar with a beautiful looping long-range effort.

He also led River in almost every other metric to show off the complete nature of his game: seven out of 10 duels won; 46 passes completed in the opposition half; three out of four successful dribbles and no fewer than five shots, outgunning even Alvarez.

Such has been his impact that Real Madrid are reportedly keeping close tabs on Fernandez's progress, a development that is music to his ears.

“I am pleased because it means I am doing things right but my head is in River,” he told reporters when asked about the links.

Defensa president Diego Lemme, meanwhile, is not surprised to hear the rumours, telling Como te va: “When we brought him to Defensa we told him he was a player for Real Madrid. I hope he can make it to Europe, he has more than enough talent.”

Enzo PS

The Spanish giants are not Fernandez's only reported suitors. In recent weeks Italian duo Inter and AC Milan and Madrid's Liga rivals Sevilla have also been linked to the budding star; as have City, presenting the intriguing prospect of seeing his partnership with Alvarez continue in the Premier League.

For now Fernandez's priorities are clear. To continue starring for River at home and in the Libertadores, where they made a strong start to the 2022 campaign on Wednesday beating Alianza Lima 1-0 on the road.

He will also aim to remain in the gaze of Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni, who included him in November's World Cup qualifying squad but declined to hand him his debut.

The final tournament may come just a little too soon for the midfielder but if he carries on impressing with his all-action performances Scaloni may well consider taking him to Qatar as a ready-made understudy for Rodrigo de Paul, who is a player cut from a similar mould and also blessed with that irrepressible energy that makes such a difference in the engine room.

What is absolutely certain is that we will be hearing much more from Fernandez in the months to come, and it would be no surprise if he follows Alvarez to one of Europe's elite outfits sooner rather than later.