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Ronaldo, Eto’o, Suarez. Some of Europe’s elite strikers have worn the iconic number 9 shirt for Blaugrana over the years but who will be the next in line? Rumour has it that Lautaro Martinez could be the next striker to be granted with the privilege.
The 22-year-old Argentinian has shone for Inter Milan this season under the management of Antonio Conte, racking up an impressive 16 goals in 31 games for the Nerazzurri; 5 of those goals came in the Champions League groups stages which has put the young marksman on the radar of Europe’s top clubs.
According to numerous recent reports, Barcelona are leading the race for Martinez with the reigning Spanish champions willing to offer Inter some of their own players to cut down Martinez’s price tag given financial losses following the outbreak of Covid-19.
It’s hardly surprising that Barca are on the hunt for a new centre-forward with Luis Suarez, at 33 years of age, approaching the twilight of his career and recent addition Martin Braithwaite who has failed to make an impact at Barça following his controversial move from Leganes in February.
But who is the player nicknamed ‘The Bull’ and is he the key to unlocking renewed dominance in Europe for Barcelona?
Born in the port city of Bahia Blanca, 400 miles south-west of Buenos Aires, Martinez excelled for local side Liniers at U17 level and caught the eye of Argentinian heavyweights Racing Club, whose reserve side he joined in January 2014. It wasn’t long until he made his first-team debut for the 16-time champions of Argentina in November 2015, coming on as a second-half substitute in a 3-0 league win over Crucero del Norte. Fast-forward a year and the then 19-year-old scored his first league goal for the club situated in Avellanda, a city of greater Buenos Aires, with their sole goal in a 1-1 stalemate with Huracan.
With the injury to first-choice striker Lisandro Lopez, Martinez played a key role for Racing Club in the 2016/17 season, bagging 9 goals in 23 league appearances, impressive for a player who was still a couple months shy of his twentieth birthday.
Whilst playing in Racing’s reserve side, Martinez had been on the books of Spanish heavyweights Real Madrid but he opted to remain in his native country. Two years later in December 2017 and Martinez had undergone a medical with Los Blancos’ city rival Atletico, albeit without Racing’s permission. The move fell through and the striker signed an improved deal with the Argentinians.
Despite being one of Argentina’s biggest clubs, Racing Club was a sleeping giant; they hadn’t won the Argentinian Superliga since the 1965/66 season (they would go on to end this drought in 2019, winning the 18/19 league title) and hadn’t picked up any silverware since the latter stages of the 1960s. Martinez needed a move, and with some of Europe’s largest outfits beckoning for his signature, it was only a matter of time until the striker made his move to football’s elite continent.
This club proved to be Inter Milan, ironically another sleeping giant of its respective country. Martinez joined Inter in July 2018 for a fee of €22.5m ahead of the 2018/19 campaign, however the then 20-year-old would have to wait until the second half of the season to really make an impact.
It didn’t take long for the Argentine to score his first goal for Nerazzurri, getting off the mark in late September in a 2-0 Serie A win over Cagliari at the San Siro. However, it wasn’t until club captain and first-choice striker Mauro Icardi was excused from action due to personal reasons mid-way through the campaign that Martinez was given more of an opportunity.
The striker scored seven goals in all competitions after Christmas, which is more impressive given that he was rarely starting. However, it wasn’t until this campaign, when Antonio Conte replaced Luciano Spalletti, that Martinez really started making a name for himself as one of Europe’s most promising forwards.
The 50-year-old manager has imprinted his trademark 3-5-2 formation on Inter, which won him league titles at Juventus and Chelsea, and has proved relatively successful with Inter, who, at one stage, looked like strong contenders for their first Serie A title in 10 years.
Martinez, alongside summer signing Romelu Lukaku upfront, has been a regular under Conte, starting 29 of Inter’s 37 games in all competitions so far this season and bagging 17 goals in the process.
However, despite exiting the competition at the group stage, Martinez shone in the Champions League, scoring five goals in Inter’s six group games including, ironically, a consolation at Camp Nou against Barcelona. His impressive performances in Europe’s elite competition as well as Serie A this season has certainly boosted his market value and, if not already, has put him on the radar of Europe’s top clubs.
As well as this, he’s racked up 17 caps for his native Argentina, scoring 9 goals in the process at a rate of one every 1.9 games.
There’s no doubt that Barcelona could do with a striker in the summer, however the club finds itself in financial jeopardy following the Covid-19 pandemic which is why a deal for Martinez, whose release clause at Inter stands at around €100m, would have to include a number of Barcelona players heading to Inter.
At just 22 years of age, the marksman has proved that he has what it takes to meet the requirements of Europe’s elite clubs and, at such a young age, can go on to be amongst the most prolific strikers on the continent.