With the summer break drawing to a close, Argentinian football is slowly stirring from its slumber as the Superliga resumes again following the customary January friendlies. These matches, rather than gentle warm-ups, often pitch some of the biggest sides in the country against their bitter rivals, adding an extra significance and spice to pre-season proceedings.
One such occasion occurred in Cordoba where the city’s two biggest sides, Belgrano and Talleres, faced off in the iconic Estadio Mario Kempes. In front of over 40,000 fans, it was a tight affair that took until the final ten mins to finally catch light. Talleres thought they had scored the winner when Jonathan Menendez netted in the 86th minute, tucking in the rebound after Olaza’s penalty had been saved, only for 10-man Belgrano to equalise through Erik Godoy’s header.
At the half-way stage of the season, both sides can look back on good starts to the campaign so far. Talleres, in only their second season back in the top flight, sit in fourth while Belgrano are further back in ninth but only one point behind their cross-city neighbours. Although Instituto are still languishing in mid-table in the Nacional B, generally speaking the current state of football in Cordoba is very healthy.
Just before the highly-anticipated clasico, I was fortunate enough to attend a pre-season training session at Belgrano’s predio in Villa Esquiu, giving me the opportunity to get a first-hand look at an interesting batch of youngsters emerging at the club.
Not traditionally known as a huge producer of talent, perhaps the most well-known former Piratas in recent years include Franco Vazquez, Mario Bolatti, Lucas Zelarayan and current Argentina international Emiliano Rigoni. However, that record might be about to change with some of the prospects listed below.
CRISTIAN ROMERO (19, Defender)
The highly-rated centre back broke through into the first team last year, making 13 appearances, but has found game time harder to come by this season following the arrival of Erik Godoy. Nevertheless, the 19-year-old has done well when called upon with an average of four interceptions and six clearances per game and still has plenty of time ahead of him to justify the hype.
An U20 Argentina international, “Cuti” wasn’t at his best at the 2017 Sudamericano but it was still a surprise to see him miss out on a spot in the squad for the U20 World Cup. Though still raw and occasionally rash in the challenge, Romero is a proactive, physical defender but one who also likes to play the ball out of defence when possible. The example below shows this confidence and the head-up approach that characterises Romero’s game.
Although he can be guilty of going to ground too easily in the tackle, here we see Romero’s aggressive, positive style of defending in all its glory. These attributes have seen both Atletico Madrid and Villarreal follow his progress closely.
LUCAS ACOSTA (22, Goalkeeper)
Tasked with the near impossible job of succeeding club legend Juan Carlos Olave, Lucas Acosta had big boots to fill. However, Acosta has stepped up to the plate better than anyone could have expected, demonstrating his fine shot-stopping ability, excellent positioning and strong personality to become one of Belgrano’s key players this season.
Already captain of the side, Acosta has kept eight clean sheets in twelve games – the joint best in the league along with Boca’s Agustin Rossi. Nicknamed ‘el Loco’, his impressive physique and good communication has bred confidence to the players around him and contributed to Belgrano having one of the tightest defences in the league.
Furthermore, Acosta is quickly developing a reputation as a penalty expert, having starred in a number of shoot outs in the Copa Argentina and recently in the friendly against Talleres, while also possessing decent distribution with the ball out of hand or at his feet too.
In the example above we see a double save against Banfield, displaying his agility, shot-stopping and recovery speed, while below the picture demonstrates his ability to stand his ground and make himself difficult to beat, as well as a fantastic last gasp reflex save.
VALENTIN BARBERO (17, Midfielder)
The young attacking midfielder may have only made one sub appearance so far for Belgrano but is already being courted by Boca and is seen as one of the club’s best prospects. Usually deployed as a right winger, Barbero can operate more centrally or even as a forward and excels at dribbling and taking on opponents. The tall, skilful teen also became the first player born in 2000 to play in the Primera when he made his debut as a 16-year-old against Huracan.
An unused substitute in the Argentina squad at the U17 Sudamericano last year, it might be a little while before we see Barbero in action. I spoke to Belgrano manager Pablo Lavallen at the club’s pre-season training and he was at pains to state that there was no rush to drop him in at the deep end. “He’s still taking his first steps with the reserves but obviously he is a big project for the club,” he told me. “No-one likes to eat their steak under-cooked so you don’t want to throw him in until the conditions are perfect and stable so that he can shine. Rather than bow to pressure or impatience, it’s better to hold him back and bring him at the right moment.”
TOMAS GUIDARA (21, Full Back)
Belgrano’s decent start to the season has been epitomised by their strong defensive displays and right back Guidara has been one of the breakthrough players for the Piratas. His rise to prominence has been a particularly heart-warming tale as he has battled through adversity to stake a first team place for himself. Abandoned by his parents as a child, he occasionally had to sleep rough and went without food, but was supported by his humble grandparents and by the club, which became like a second home to him.
Having overcome that tough childhood, his game shows similar signs of resilience and determination. Guidara is a dogged right back that can also play further forward and has impressed with his raids down the flank, forming a good on-field relationship with another young prospect Fabricio Brener. Defensively he is sound too, averaging 2.5 tackles and 3 interceptions per game in the 6 appearances he has made so far this season.
With Argentina crying out for decent full backs, it will be interesting to see how Guidara builds on the promising start to his career.
JUAN BRUNETTA (20, Attacking Midfielder)
Although not strictly a Belgrano academy product, 20-year-old Brunetta is still one of the club’s best young players. After a breakthrough year with a struggling Arsenal de Sarandi side, in which he managed six goals and four assists, the Celeste saw enough to bring the Laboulaye-born lad back to his native Cordoba in the summer. Usually deployed on the left wing for Arsenal, he’s operated more centrally for Belgrano, either as a number 10 or support striker, and has chipped in with a goal and an assist so far.
A set piece specialist with a decent strike from range, Brunetta is also a potent, pacey dribbler who can deliver a pin-point cross. He also has an impressive range of passing and good off-the-ball movement, which allows him to find space between the lines and get into positions where he can influence the game in the final third.
The examples below demonstrate both his ability to act as a central playmaker or in wider positions, as well as the threat he poses with his shooting from distance, dribbling with the ball and providing dangerous crosses.
TOMAS ATTIS (18, Striker)
Like the aforementioned Barbero, Attis is only just making his first forays into first team football but is highly thought of at the club. The 18-year-old forward has only made a handful of appearances, mainly as a sub, but at youth level he boasted a fearsome record and was even called up to the latest Argentina U20 squad.
Dubbed ‘El Tanque‘ for his impressive physical attributes, Attis is very much a powerful penalty box number nine who models his game on Martin Palermo. Good in the air and already boasting impressive hold-up play to bring teammates into the game, he is more than a mere poacher and likes to make penetrating diagonal runs into the box, as the example below shows.
Attis may not feature much this year but, with Belgrano struggling for form in front of goal, he may the long-term answer to their striking issues and is one to keep an eye on.