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Thiago Almada: Argentina's next great playmaker on Man City's radar

7:30 AM EST 3/5/20
Thiago Almada NxGn
The 18-year-old has already racked up 40 senior appearances for Velez Sarsfield having been brought up in one of Buenos Aires' most notorious areas

At the beginning of the 21st century, Fuerte Apache ceased to be just one of the most deprived and feared neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires and suddenly became famous for producing one of Argentina's finest footballers.

Carlos Tevez overcame what was at times a rough upbringing to become one of the world's most feared forwards, earning plaudits at Boca Juniors, Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus.

And while Tevez was writing his own legend, back where he grew up a new footballing talent was being nurtured and who is now well on the way to becoming a household name the world over himself.

Born in April 2001, Thiago 'Guayo' Almada spent his early years combining his love for football with earning pocket money by selling fruit and vegetables door-to-door for one of his neighbours. Matches between friends would be broken up by gunshots from across the neighbourhood, with Almada spending a lot of time with his grandparents while his parents worked.

"I spent my childhood in the neighbourhood. I learned good and bad things," he told TyC Sports. "There were people who smoked next to me and I saw people walking with a gun in their hands."

In a further interview with Clarin, he added: "In the neighbourhood there are a lot who chose the bad road. It's one way or the other, and I had to choose."

Almada chose football, and at the age of four was already playing for local club Santa Clara, where Tevez too honed his craft before moving to Boca.

Eduardo Hernandez coached both players, telling Clarin: "Almada is much more technical. Carlitos always stood out for his delivery and his desire. But with the ball, Thiago is better. In Fuerte Apache there are many kids with technique and ability. Many remain on the streets for social reasons."

By the age of five, Almada had been snapped up by a professional club, though it was neither Boca nor River Plate who took a chance on him. Instead he was enrolled into the academy at Velez Sarsfield on the other side of the General Paz Avenue that separates the city of Buenos Aires from its provincial territory.

A clear level above his peers, Almada seamlessly made his way through the various age-group sides before making his first-team debut in August 2018, just four months on from his 17th birthday. In his first season in Gabriel Heinze's senior squad he made 16 Superliga appearances, contributing three goals and two assists, including a brace against Defensa in his first ever start that truly put him on the radar of the wider Argentine public.

Having already travelled to Russia to shadow the senior Argentina squad as they disappointed at the 2018 World Cup, Almada was called up to the Under-20s squad for the South American Championship in the summer of 2019. Despite being the youngest player on the roster he was a standout performer as the Albiceleste finished as runners-up to surprise winners Ecuador.

Almada's performances for club and country alerted Manchester City, who made a reported offer of €20 million (£16m/$26m) to bring the playmaker to the Etihad Stadium. Pep Guardiola was cited as being a big fan of the teenager, but Velez were not willing to let their young gem depart without a fight.

Furious rows began to break out between the club and the media who reported he would be leaving, with former Manchester United defender Heinze publicly branding one journalist a "liar" after his continued stories regarding the future of Almada.

Eventually the saga ended with Almada signing a new four-year contract that includes a €25m (£22m/$28m) release clause. Should Almada continue to impress that is unlikely to put off too many of Europe's elite clubs in the coming months.

Following his breakout campaign, Almada has picked up where he left off this season, scoring five goals and laying on two assists in 22 appearances thus far as Velez lead the race to finish third in this season's Superliga behind River and Boca.

As well as showcasing his supreme talent on the ball, he has also provided signs that he is maturing mentally, most notably when stepping up in the third minute of stoppage time to score a penalty that saw Velez avoid a first-round elimination from the Copa Sudamericana at the hands of SD Aucas in February.

Possessing a supreme ability with the ball at his feet, the comparisons to Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona are natural when any player with such talents appears on the horizon. Almada, though, has others who he looks to for inspiration.

Tevez, of course, is one given his rags-to-riches tale, but Almada has also spoken of how he watches Eden Hazard regularly to try and learn from the Real Madrid star. He also idolises Boca Juniors legend Juan Roman Riquelme, who actually invited Almada to his house for a barbeque having seen him play for Velez and immediately wanted to meet him.

It is unlikely to be long before Almada departs his homeland for Europe, with City unlikely to be put off despite their failure to capture him just under 12 months ago. The Argentine public just hopes he will return to lead their national team back to its former glories before too long.