39. Lautaro Martínez
The top entry player of South America and one of only two players to take their place on this list, this gem thoroughly deserves his place as the continent’s #1 and to be completely honest, it seems a little wrong having him under this bracket as he is already a star within his side Racing Club. Last season, he set the continent alight, but this might just be the season where he earns a move to one of Europe’s top clubs.
Lautaro’s current absence from Racing due to injury is a huge blow to their squad and is hurting them drastically, especially with the sale of Gustavo Bou as well. His ratio of 9 goals in 23 Primera División matches is only going to increase when he returns, I have no doubt about it.
So, who is Lautaro Martínez? It’s a fair question, with the player having a very fast progression to become the player he is today. He only broke onto the Racing scene in April 2016, with a halftime substitution appearance in what was then seen as a risky bid to chase a home match in which they trailed Argentinos Juniors 2-1. This baptism of fire didn’t quite set an accurate tone for how his future at the club was going to go and just 22 minutes into his debut, he was sent off for two yellow cards in the 65th and 67th minute, in a lacklustre performance devoid of experience and maturity. Obviously, due to the disappointment of his debut, he was limited to just one more appearance off the bench in the 2015-2016 season and to be blunt, he just didn’t look ready at this point.
Coming into the 2016-2017 season, his luck was about to change, and with a strong start to the pre-season, he began to get consistent minutes off the bench, looking very lively indeed. Most importantly, he was starting to look extremely comfortable on the pitch, and his cameo appearances increased to pretty much every match. These impressive performances meant that he had nailed himself down as the third-choice attacker at the club, behind the powerhouses Lisandro López and Gustavo Bou. In hindsight, the injury to López, who suffered with a tear in March, vastly increased his progression at the club, and Lautaro was called upon for nine consecutive starts. This run of matches saw him score six times and become an important member of Diego Cocca’s XI. Cocca faced a selection headache as López recovered from injury, and I have no doubt that the sale of Gustavo Bou in June was down to the form of a fantastic replacement in Martínez.
In May, he went off to South Korea for the U20 World Cup to represent Argentina’s U20 side against the most talented youngsters on the planet. This didn’t go to plan at all, with Lautaro coming into the competition with an injury and ending up with just two short appearances. Firstly, a 60 minute sub appearance in the first match against England lasted 18 minutes, with Lautaro getting sent off for an elbow; a slight attitude problem has become part of his game. He did however return after his suspension for their final group match against Guinea in much better physical shape and scored two goals. In total, his U20 World Cup lasted a total of 108 minutes, with Lautaro earning 2 goals and 1 red card–these stats sum up why he is on the list.
Lautaro’s performances are always exciting and full of verve; if he starts a match, there’s a hell of a chance that you are going to hear about it one way or another. Upon his return to Argentina to finish the 2016-2017 season, he started a further five games for La Academia, scoring two more to give him a record of eight goals in 14 starts, with plenty of these appearances coming at a time when he was carrying a niggling injury.
The loss of Gustavo Bou to Tijuana means he ended last season as the new, undisputed partner for Lisandro López. However, on June 30, in a Copa Sudamericana match against Medellín, he fractured his 5th metatarsal after just 14 minutes, keeping him out until October 2017. Racing desperately miss his goalscoring impact, having just won one of the past five matches, sliding down to 12th in the table, a far cry from last season’s 4th placed finish.
So, how does Martínez play? I can’t help but make a comparison here to a certain Argentinian currently playing at the top level of Europe. His main characteristics are uncanny, with great dribbling skills and a deadly finish on top of a very aggressive approach to matches, as well as an injury-prone record–cough, cough–Agüero. His work rate is second to none, but he does need to control his aggressiveness more smartly in the future, particularly when he gets his move to Europe, which I see as an absolute certainty. The only thing that will delay this move is if Racing fail manage his fitness throughout this season. If he can remain fit and get a steady run of 20+ matches in a Racing shirt this season, I am almost certain that he will be off to Europe this summer, with Atlético Madrid already showing a strong interest in the player.
If he manages to stay fit, I have no doubt that Lautaro will end up in the top flight of England or Spain. And this is his story so far, for a player just 20 years of age, he has already made such loud noise with his attitude and goals.
By: Danny Stevens/@FRfutbolDanny