Less than six months ago, Alvarez was one of the break-out stars of Argentina’s World Cup win. He became first choice during the course of the campaign in Qatar. His youthful legs did a lot of the hard running for Lionel Messi and he contributed four goals to the cause — the only Argentine player other than Messi to score more than once. Lautaro, meanwhile, lost his place in the starting lineup, seemed to suffer a breakdown in form, had to content himself with a bit-part role off the bench and was not able to get onto the scoresheet. Come the end of the tournament, then, there was no doubt about the respective places in Argentina’s pecking order.
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But at club level it is a very different story.
True, this is the first season at Manchester City for Alvarez, and he has certainly not disappointed. His total of 17 goals in all competitions is a more than reasonable return, especially as his opportunities are limited. For his club, Alvarez is the bit-part player; Erling Haaland is king of the front line and everything has to fit around the Norwegian goal machine. When City are at full strength, Alvarez has to make do with a place on the bench, where he sits in very good company alongside outstanding players such as Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and the ghost of the 2022-23 season, England’s Euro 2020 first-choice central midfielder, Kalvin Phillips.
Internazionale have nothing like the same astonishing strength in depth, but they pose a threat. They can rotate their big striker, with the veteran former Manchester City centre-forward Edin Dzeko starting and then giving way to Romelu Lukaku. But alongside them there is no doubt about it — he may have lost the World Cup battle to Alvarez but, at Inter, Lautaro is the main man. The 25-year-old responded to the experience of Qatar by helping himself to 20 goals this season, and City will underestimate him at their peril.
Lautaro will look to take advantage of flicks and knock downs from Dzeko and Lukaku and will prowl around them with the predatory menace of a hammerhead shark. After five seasons in Italy he has scored more than 100 goals for the club. It is almost inevitable that he will have to get by on scraps in Istanbul on Saturday. City will surely enjoy the bulk of possession, leaving Inter to take the direct route whenever they can. Lautaro may go a while without seeing the ball and chances on goal may be scarce. But if and when they come, his teammates have total confidence in him. And he has enough in himself to deal with the pressures of the big occasion.
His World Cup made for fascinating viewing. In the first half of the opening game against Saudi Arabia he helped himself to a couple of efficiently taken goals, both ruled out for the narrowest of offsides. Thereafter, with Argentina under surprise scoreboard pressure, his touch seemed to desert him, and then things only got worse. He was clearly struggling for form, going through one of those phases when the target looks tiny and the goalkeeper looms large. In subsequent games, Argentina would bring him off the bench and try to get him a goal, and the harder he tried the worse his finishing became.
And then came that penalty shootout against Netherlands. Argentina had the game in the bag, only to be foiled by an outrageously cunning last-gasp equaliser. Might the same thing happen in the shootout? The South Americans were two up and seemingly on the verge of triumph. But then Enzo Fernandez shot wide. Netherlands scored, the nerves were jangling and the pressure was right back on. Some went weak at the knees when they saw Lautaro stride forward to take the next penalty. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had gone right for him in the tournament until that point. Was he now going to confirm his status as the villain of the piece?
Merely having the guts to step up at a time like that was an act of valour. Blasting his kick home as if he never held the slightest doubt was almost superhuman. And it helps explain why Lautaro scores so many goals: because he has the mental strength to accept the responsibility, and the chance that he might miss.
Manchester City are the form horse. They have the style and the swagger, and the silverware already this season to back it up. They have a squad with sufficient quality to leave Alvarez on the bench. But to achieve the dream and lift the Champions League trophy they will need to keep a close eye on Lautaro.
Champions League final: Julian Alvarez vs. Lautaro Martinez