At just 22, the striker has been already leading the way for club and country, raising hopes that Leo has found his perfect partner in the Albiceleste
It takes a special sort of soccer professional to hit more goals in an Argentina shirt than even Lionel Messi, lifeblood and saviour of his national team for the past decade.
Or to step up and fill the void left at Inter by the departure of former captain and top scorer Mauro Icardi, in the process outshining two vastly experienced international footballers.
Luckily for both his club and country, Lautaro Martinez has been that special sort.
Two scintillating performances in the space of four days, coupled with his fantastic record with the Albiceleste, have seen Inter’s young striker take top billing for club and country at the start of the 2019-20 season.
Much was made over the summer of Antonio Conte’s ambitious plans at San Siro. Icardi’s late but entirely expected exit was compensated ahead of time by the arrivals of Manchester United duo Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku, a pair whose reputations preceded them.
Having played second fiddle to Icardi for a large chunk of his debut season at Inter, Martinez was once more presented with a challenge: muscle his way into consideration over not one, but two seasoned, elite professionals. Those paying close attention to the former Racing Club wonderkid’s trajectory, however, need not have worried.
El Toro, as he has been affectionately known by team-mates and fans alike, has once more taken the proverbial bull by the horns.
His goal at Camp Nou last week put Barcelona on the back foot and it was followed by a slick penalty in Sunday’s Derby d’Italia against Juventus, making the 22-year-old one of the few Interisiti to come out of those narrow yet painful defeats with his stature enhanced, meaning his place in Conte’s first XI – not to mention the Argentina starting line-up – can no longer be in any doubt.
While Martinez’s calm in slamming his spot-kick past Wojciech Szczesny and cancelling out Paulo Dybala’s early strike at the weekend demonstrated his steely nerve under pressure, it was that goal in Catalunya that really summed up the young Bahia Blanca native as a soccer professional.
Chasing a seemingly hopeless round ball two minutes in, Lautaro not only regained possession but had the strength and presence of mind to hold off Clement Lenglet and the marksmanship even on his weaker left foot to angle his shot inch-perfectly between Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s glove and the goalkeeper’s left-hand post.
Barca’s rickety defence was stretched throughout the 90 minutes by Martinez, who forced a fine save out of Ter Stegen with a header and then saw Nelson Semedo come to the rescue with a late block to limit him to one goal.
The forward poses a threat off both feet and, perhaps most surprisingly, in the air, where, despite standing at just 1.74 metres (5′ 8”) tall, his timing and tenacity on the header makes him a match for grizzled centre-backs of far greater physical stature.
Arguably his most valuable trait, and rarest of all in a soccer professional of such tender years, has been Lautaro’s comfort in playing off a single touch.
A huge percentage of his goals at Racing, Inter and with Argentina have come off first-time shots and he has been almost never guilty of holding onto the round ball too long, instead preferring to play in a team-mate and immediately open up the field. That ability has seen him make a bigger impression than either Lukaku or Alexis so far in 2019-20 as Inter battle Juve for the Scudetto.
It has also seen him rocket up the pecking order for the Albiceleste. After the disappointment of being overlooked for the 2018 World Cup under Jorge Sampaoli, Martinez has been the standard-bearer for a new generation of talent ushered in by Lionel Scaloni.
His first-half hat-trick against Mexico in September took him to nine goals in 10 Argentina starts since Scaloni took over, comfortably ahead of any other soccer professional in the national team set-up, including Messi (albeit in fewer games).
But it has been the natural understanding glimpsed between the pair at the Copa America that gives the Albiceleste – and possibly Barca – most hope for the future.
“I asked [Messi for his shirt] before the game and at the end he came over to give it to me. In the national team a great friendship has been forged between us,” he told reporters following the Barcelona clash.
“He has been an example to us, he has been vital as a person to our team. Being part of Argentina has been an honour.
“Do I see myself at Barca with him? I am thinking about playing for Inter, it has been a dream to play in the national team with him. I have admired him since I was a kid but my head and goals are with Inter.”
Suspended by CONMEBOL due to his disparaging comments at the end of the Copa, Messi will no doubt be watching closely as Lautaro leads the line on Wednesday against none other than Germany, Argentina’s nemesis in the 2014 World Cup final.
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With Sergio Aguero also missing, it represents another opportunity for the Inter star and the likes of Dybala and newcomer Lucas Ocampos to prove they can battle for places ahead of Qatar 2022 in a new-look Argentina team.
Martinez would dearly love to cap a memorable week with a goal in Dortmund, furthering cementing his status as the future of his national team’s attack.
And the way he has been playing right now, outshining the game’s elite both for club and country, few would bet against this tenacious young talent further enhancing his burgeoning reputation against Joachim Low’s charges.