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Lautaro Martinez: Argentina's next great number nine

A look of disbelief flashed across the face of Lautaro Martinez. The referee had traced a rectangle in the air with his index fingers - the signal that his video assistant had been in touch over the radio - and reached into his pocket for a red card.

The then 19-year-old, in one of the biggest games of his burgeoning career, was destined for an early bath.

Martinez, despite the look of shock, knew what he had done. Moments before, whilst being pressured by England’s Fikayo Tomori, he swung out with a wild right elbow, nastily catching the Chelsea defender on the side of the head.

It was an act of frustration. His Argentina team were 2-0 down in the opening game of the 2017 U20 World Cup and the young forward, after coming from the bench, was desperate to drag his side back into contention. Argentina would go on to lose the game 3-0, and, despite a Martinez brace in a 5-0 win over Guinea in the final group game, would not make it into the knockout rounds.

Racing Club v Huracan - Superliga 2017/18

Then, just weeks after being dumped out of that World Cup, Martinez broke a metatarsal in his right foot, adding injury to insult and keeping him out of Racing Club’s opening games in the 2017-18 Superliga Argentina.

It was a tough period for him, but any up-and-comer will inevitably suffer disappointment and defeat at some point. The real litmus test is how they bounce back from it and, since his comeback, Martinez - now quicker and more muscular - has played like a man possessed.

He scored on his return and has not stopped since, netting 12 times and notching three assists in just 16 games. Highlights have included a man-of-the-match performance away to Boca Juniors, in which he contributed a goal and a scintillating assist, a hat-trick against Huracan in the league and another three-goal haul in the Copa Libertadores against a hardy Cruzeiro defence.

An array of European giants has been observing his development at Racing for some years already, but his performances over the past few months have pushed everyone into a state of red alert and Racing’s asking price to over €25 million.

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Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Real were all thought to be keen and Martinez even got as far as having a medical at Atlético Madrid, but it now looks as if Inter Milan will win the race for his signature. His agent – much to Racing’s disgust – has said the transfer will happen in July.

It is not just the number of goals that make Martinez such an attractive proposition but the way that he scores them. Like Harry Kane, he can shoot with both feet and has the handy knack of almost always finding the bottom corner. His anticipation of opportunities is Aguero-like and he is deadly in the air despite standing at just a shade under 5’9”.

Add to that the ability to pick up the ball from deep and dribble past defenders, play inch-perfect through-balls, as well as cross, and you can start to paint a picture in your head of just why Martinez is so coveted. When Hernan Crespo is comparing you to Sergio Aguero in public, you are likely to have a bright future ahead.

FBL-U20-VEN-ARG

This form, backed by a concerted campaign in the Argentine press, has propelled Martinez into the senior Argentina squad for the upcoming friendlies against Italy and Spain, the first of which will take place at the City of Manchester Stadium on Friday 23rd March.

With Aguero injured and Dybala and Icardi left out entirely, it is probable that Martinez will get a chance to show the world just what he is capable of at some point during the two games.

Icardi, after playing the first few matches under Jorge Sampaoli, has fallen out of favour and there is a widely-held perception in Argentina that Dybala is not compatible with Lionel Messi. So, if the Racing youngster can put in a decent performance now, he may well book himself a place on the plane to Russia come July.

The question that remains is whether Martinez can really kick on to become a top player in Europe and place himself alongside the likes of Aguero, Crespo, Batistuta and Kempes in the pantheon of great Argentine number nines.

Two obstacles will stand in his way.

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The first is his adaptation to his new surroundings, both on and off the pitch. Football in Europe is played at a higher tempo than in South America and Martinez will find opposition defenders allow him less time to work his magic and get shots away.

He has also said in interviews how troubled he was after moving from his family home in Bahia Blanca to Buenos Aires, just 400 miles away, when he was 16.

“I wanted to go back to Bahia… I am very connected to my family”, he told El Grafico last year, “I missed everything, and especially Alan, my older brother… leaving that behind was very difficult.”

At one point, Martinez almost quit the Racing academy to return home and probably would have were it not for the advice of his friend and team-mate Brian Mansilla. There is no doubt that he is more mature now, but a move to another continent, culture and language can prove a difficult task for someone who suffers from acute homesickness.

The second obstacle is Inter’s poor recent track record of developing players signed directly from South American clubs. Philippe Coutinho struggled for form after his move there from Vasco da Gama and was sold to Liverpool. More recently, Diego Laxalt and Gabriel Barbosa have gone to the Milanese giants and failed to take off, despite their undoubted talent.

Only time will tell, then, what is in store for Martinez in Italy. If he is to make it to the very top, he will need to call on those reserves of strength and determination that helped him back from his disappointment at the World Cup.

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