Uefa Cham­pi­ons League draw made.

Tot­ten­ham fans hope Ar­gen­tine will fill the void left by Gareth Bale, writes Ian Hawkey

The National - News - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - [email protected]­ational.ae Cham­pi­ons League draw, s10-11

When Erik Lamela was 12 years old, he seemed to have the world at his feet. He had in his bed­room a pho­to­graph of him­self with Ronald­inho, not the type tourists take, pos­ing next to life-size cutouts of fa­mous play­ers at Barcelona’s sta­dium, ei­ther. It was the real “Ronie”, with long ringlets, goofy grin, a su­per­star then in his prime.

It had been snapped at a per­sonal meet­ing, when Lamela was be­ing shown around Barcelona, en­ticed to join the Span­ish club’s fa­bled acad­emy.

Lamela had been spot­ted bam­boo­zling big­ger lads with his wide reper­toire of tricks on the ball at a youth tour­na­ment in Gali­cia, in north-west Spain. Barcelona wanted him en­rolled with them be­fore his 13th birth­day. They of­fered €10,000 a month. He could bring his fam­ily over, his fa­ther Jose was told. A fa­mous sports­wear com­pany also of­fered a con­tract and re­port­edly pre­sented Erik, known as “Coco” to his friends, with the chicest mo­bile phone on the 2004 mar­ket.

Back in his na­tive Ar­gentina, news of the of­fer was greeted with anger. River Plate, the Buenos Aires club to which Lamela was then at­tached and whom he had rep­re­sented at the Gali­cia event, talked about “piracy”, while the ten­der age of Lamela was cited as an ex­am­ple of how ruth­less the trade in young South Amer­i­can tal­ent among the clubs of Europe had be­come.

River Plate, de­ter­mined to keep Lamela, coun­selled his fam­ily to let him ma­ture at home, and gave them in­cen­tives, in­clud­ing schol­ar­ships for he and his broth­ers to study at a good col­lege.

Lamela stayed in Buenos Aires rather than join a Barcelona side whose nurs­ery had pro­duced teenage coun­try­man Lionel Messi, who was shortly to grad­u­ate. His life, though, had changed. He was on a TV chat show, show­ing off the step-overs, feints and jug­gles he had been prac­tic­ing prac­ti­cally since he could first walk. At 12, he was briefly more fa­mous than Messi at 16.

Even be­fore Lamela started be­ing la­belled the boy Barca had tried to make their “New Messi”, he had been seen as a rein­car­na­tion of a great.

Daniel Pas­sarella, the for­mer Ar­gentina cap­tain who is one of River Plate’s power bro­kers, was re­minded, very early in Lamela’s prodi­gious teens, of Gianni Rivera, the great Italy and AC Mi­lan play­maker of the 1960s and ’70s.

By the time he was 15, com­par­isons were be­ing made with Brazil’s Kaka, then pro­pel­ling AC Mi­lan to tri­umph in the Uefa Cham­pi­ons League.

The way Lamela glides past op­po­nents is in­deed rem­i­nis­cent of Kaka at his peak, as is the sharp change of pace which Kaka once had. The young Lamela, though, grew up with Zine­dine Zi­dane as his idol, im­i­tat­ing and re­hears­ing the French­man’s turns and drag­backs.

More re­cently, he has been liked to an­other iconic No 10. His sec­ond sea­son at Roma was so im­pres­sive, talk was of his be­com­ing the “Next Francesco Totti”, a wor-

thy suc­ces­sor to the long-serv­ing, adored Roma cap­tain.

Even Totti said so – “I hope he can fol­low me,” mut­tered the Em­peror of the Eter­nal City – which may be why Lamela, on leav­ing Roma on Wed­nes­day, told fans he hoped one day to re­turn.

The £30 mil­lion (Dh170.95m) Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur have paid Roma for Lamela obliges him to take on an­other suc­ces­sion.

Though Spurs have re­cruited im­pres­sively this sum­mer, an­tic­i­pat­ing the vast in­come they will yield from the sale of their star player to Real Madrid, of all the new re­cruits – in­clud­ing Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Etionne Capoue and Roberto Soldado – Lamela is the one with the cre­den­tials to be­come their new Gareth Bale. He can surge through op­po­si­tion de­fences, ball at his feet, with some of Bale’s in­ten­sity, and he has goals in his make-up. He scored 15 for Roma last sea­son in 33 Serie A matches, and in the au­tumn of 2012 strung to­gether a run of seven in six matches.

That was an im­por­tant phase in his de­vel­op­ment, a year and half into his spell at Roma, who had signed him from River at 18 for around £16m. He worked with four dif­fer­ent coaches in two years in Rome and dealt with dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his best role. The break­through came un­der Zdenek Ze­man, who took over at Roma last sum­mer. Ze­man urged him to ex­ploit his speed, play less with his back to goal and to use his drib­bling as­sets.

“He has had a very good year and has ma­tured a lot,” says Alex Sa­bella, the man­ager of Ar­gentina, who has re­called Lamela to the national squad af­ter a two-year hiatus. Ahead of next year’s World Cup, Sa­bella will mon­i­tor Lamela’s adap­ta­tion to English football. Tot­ten­ham will hope he pro­vides some of the en­ergy, thrill and im­pact they had from Bale over the past three sea­sons.

Sup­port­ers of cer­tain gen­er­a­tion will dream­ily won­der if the young Ar­gen­tine can write his­tory for the club in the way Os­valdo Ardiles, an im­mensely pop­u­lar mid­fielder at White Hart Lane in the 1970s and ’80s, and his com­pa­triot, Ricky Villa, scorer of a mem­o­rable, vir­tu­oso goal in an FA Cup fi­nal vic­tory, once did.

Al­most a decade af­ter Lamela, the pre­co­cious school­boy, turned down Barcelona, he may have found him­self the place best-suited to him at this stage of his ca­reer.

Gabriele Malt­inti / Getty Im­ages

Tot­ten­ham have a rich his­tory with Ar­gen­tine play­ers such as Os­valdo Ardiles and Ricky Villa and hope their new­est re­cruit, Erik Lamela, can have the same im­pact at White Hart Lane.

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