Friday, April 6, 2012

The amazing rise of Roma wonderkid Erik Lamela- from the River reserves to the Argentina team in 18 months

There were without a doubt more than a few scratched heads amongst the Monumental faithful when, back in August 2010 and at the start of what would become a black year for River fans, a young Erik Lamela lined up on the famous pitch. 

The 18-year-old, nervous and so slightly-built a stiff breeze appeared sufficient to knock him over, had only two appearances with the first team under his belt, and in terms of River youths to watch, ranked far behind Benfica target Rogelio Funes Mori in the wonderkid stakes. 

How things change, and now there cannot be any fans of Argentine or, indeed, Italian football not aware of this talented midfielder's ability. Lamela was the only bright spark in a black 12 months for River, and having elected to continue his apprenticeship with Roma has been rewarded with a first call-up for the senior national team of Alejandro Sabella. 

Although the now 19-year-old Lamela has one cap under his belt, a friendly alongside other men called up from the local league back in May 2011, this represents the first time he has been invited to rub shoulders with Lionel Messi, Kun Aguero and the rest of the Albiceleste superstars. Sabella included the youngster in a list of 18 foreign-based players to dispute February's friendly with Switzerland and while the list reflects the coach's wish to try some different names - Napoli defender Hugo Campagnaro also made the cut at the ripe age of 31 - it is still a reflection of Lamela's startling development over the last year and a half. 

Erik forced himself into the plans of then-coach Angel Cappa, and outlived both him and successor Juan Jose Lopez in his short 12 months as a starter. The Argentine press rushed to laud this rapid, direct midfielder as a new star, and he confirmed the hype in the 2010 Apertura with a series of brilliant performances which helped the relegation-troubled Millo to fifth place in the short tournament. 

The talent was always there, a fact confirmed by interest from Barcelona when Lamela had barely turned 14. The most startling change though, in a transition that sports bible Ole gleefully illustrated, was in his physical form. The newspaper posted a picture of a gawky, skinny teenager at the beach in January 2010, right next to one of Erik 2011. The new, improved version was filled out, muscled, a man compared to the boy pictured 12 months previously. This new-found strength combined with his natural talent proved a potent mix, even though it proved insufficient for his boyhood idols. 

Despite an impressive Apertura showing, River's dreadful average points tally meant that an even more spectacular showing was necessary in the following tournament. Lamela and the rest of the team could not reproduce the football shown previously as the weight of expectation grew, and a failure to secure their position led to that unforgettable promocion defeat at the hands of Belgrano. 

Nobody took the defeat harder than Erik, who finished the second leg sprawled out on the turf inconsolable, while the Monumental was ripped to pieces by irate fans. It would prove to be his last game, as the debt-ridden giants were forced to sell to Roma for the giant sum of €18 million; and for the Italians, all suggestions are that that it will prove an inspired gamble for such a green talent. 

Remarkably for someone so young and inexperienced, Lamela has taken to Italian football like a duck to water. There have been some mistakes, as well as understandable peaks and troughs of form typical of a teenage player. Off the pitch, a widely-reported scuffle with countryman Pablo Osvaldo was definitely unwanted by the painfully shy youngster, who prefers to do his talking on the pitch. 

But overall his maiden season has been nothing short of fantastic; only Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic have made more appearances amongst the Roma outfielders, and the Argentine has repaid the faith shown by Luis Enrique with a respectable haul of one goal and three assists in his first 17 Serie A matches. 

Having climbed from the youth ranks of River Plate to the heights of Serie A in little over 18 months, Lamela must want to pinch himself, to confirm that this youngster from the River-mad Buenos Aires suburb of Florida is not just living through a wonderful dream. 

Having seen the rangy young midfielder back in Nunez where it all began, however, few commentators from that time would have argued that an international call-up was inevitable for a kid who was marked for greatness from the very beginning.

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