A big year could lie ahead for Lucas Rodríguez after becoming something of a regular in the Estudiantes starting eleven and contributing greatly to another year of Copa Libertadores qualification. The slightly built but technically gifted attacking midfielder provides El Pincha with support and creativity behind what has tended to be a lone striker and with three goals and three assists, has left his mark on the Primera.
As a product of the fine academy in La Plata, Rodríguez has had to bide his time since making his debut at the age of eighteen but under Nelson Vivas last season cemented himself in the first team as part of a promising young side. With Gustavo Matosas now at the helm, the 20-year-old will hope to remain central to the plans and judging by the Copa Sudamericana tie, that the new coach has already overseen, that will be the case.
As a key member of Claudio Úbeda’s Argentina under-20 side, Rodríguez has shown the talent and determination to succeed, having earlier in his career overcoming a fractured vertebrae suffered in a car crash. With a quick burst of speed, the trickery to beat his man and the eye for a pass and a goal, Titi has all the tools required to be a real threat in the Primera and perhaps become another of Estudiantes’ graduates bound for Europe.
“Pacey, nimble winger Rodríguez has been flying somewhat under the radar at Estudiantes, quietly going about his business and racking up over 50 appearances for El Pincha before his 21st birthday.
Clearly highly rated by country as well as club, Titi was called up for the U20s this year too but didn’t make a huge deal of impact despite being one of the more experienced members of the squad. And therein lies the issue; there’s still the lingering sensation that he’s yet to truly stand out and prove he is an exceptional talent rather than just a very good prospect.
He chips in with the odd goal and assist but is yet to be a real game-changer. Perhaps it’s too much to ask from such a young player but the next 24 months will be crucial in deciding just what he can achieve.”
What had been an outstanding breakthrough into the River Plate first team for Lucas Martinez Quarta has taken a hefty blow with the news that the 21-year-old failed a doping test after a Copa Libertadores match and will now face a spell on the sidelines.
Giving the young defender the benefit of the doubt, the evidence certainly suggests that this was a case of a contaminated supplement rather than anything untoward but at a time when the academy product had cemented a place in Marcelo Gallardo’s starting eleven it is wretched luck.
Having arrived at the Monumental as a sixteen-year-old, Martinez Quarta only made his first team debut in November of last year but with Ecuadorian international Arturo Mina struggling for form, Gallardo had no qualms with throwing the youngster into action. The 41-year-old coach’s faith was immediately repaid with a string of assured displays alongside Jonatan Maidana.
Despite not being the most physically dominant defender with a slender, six-foot frame, Martinez Quarta is a good reader of play, strong in the tackle and excellent with the ball at his feet. His composure and mental toughness mark him above many at the same stage of their careers and once this frustrating suspension is complete, a bright future looks certain.
“With River Plate’s defence looking rather dishevelled early in the 2016-17 season, as Luciano Lollo sat out injured and fellow new signing Arturo Mina flattered to deceive, a season which had always looked likely to be Lucas Martínez Quarta’s potential breakout term ended up taking on even greater significance.
The youngster rose to the occasion with impressive performance, making key interventions both early on to snuff out nascent opposing attacks, and at the last gasp to clear shots off the line. A certain amount of the gloss came off with his provisional ban after failing a CONMEBOL doping test, but Martínez Quarta remains one to watch for the future.”
Still only 21, it feels ridiculous to be thinking that Andrés Cubas has something to prove this season but after failing to break into the Boca Juniors first team and barely featuring on loan at relegated Serie A club Pescara, Cubitas now has a chance to showcase his talent at Defensa y Justicia.
There is perhaps no better place in the Primera than Florencio Varela for this after a host of young players have benefitted from loans with El Halcón in the past few seasons. While manager Sebastián Beccacece departed, Nelson Vivas has arrived and Cubas looks set to fill the role that Santiago Ascacibar excelled in for Vivas’ Estudiantes.
A cultured ball winner in the middle, Cubas more than makes up for his pint-sized frame with his busy pressing style and excellent passing. An awareness of space and the location of his teammates that is often lacking in young players sets the Misones-born midfielder apart but unlike many archetypal number fives, whose sole purpose is to destroy, Cubas is capable to join in and help link the attack from deep.
As one of the brightest graduates from Boca’s illustrious academy, Cubas has been earmarked for the top for a long time. Boca icon Mauricio ‘Chicho’ Serna put it best: “Cubas is a guy that has no ceiling. He is heading to be part of the history of Boca.” Serna knows a thing or two about playing defensive midfield and although Cubas might not make history at La Bombonera, the 21-year-old could still achieve a great deal.
Despite challenging for the last two championships, it has ultimately been a year of frustration and disappointment for San Lorenzo but the emergence of attacking midfielder Bautista Merlini has provided some reason to cheer for regulars at the Nuevo Gasómetro.
After making seventeen starts in the Primera last season, Merlini has established himself as something of a regular in the starting eleven and with his dynamism and versatility to across the midfield or in behind the striker it is clear to see why. Equipped with a decent burst of speed, quick feet and the vision to create chances, the 22-year-old stepped in after the sale of Sebastián Blanco, Martín Cauteruccio and Héctor Villalba to lift the Ciclón attack.
Having come through the Platense youth system, Merlini made his first team debut at seventeen in the Copa Argentina but when it was clear that the Calamar had a prospect on their hands, San Lorenzo swooped to add the youngster to their ranks. Another taste of senior action had to wait but not before Merlini helped the Ciclón reserves to their first title in sixteen years. Those pivotal displays prompted Pablo Guede to call El Mago for preseason and handed him a debut last year in the Copa Libertadores.
Merlini is yet to produce the goods on a consistent basis but his impressive brace against Tigre last season showed just what the 22-year-old is capable of.
“A pint-sized midfield maestro in the great Argentine tradition. Bautista Merlini had been on the fringes of the San Lorenzo until Diego Aguirre took the helm at San Lorenzo. Smaller than even Leo Messi, El Mago as Merlini is known, has used his willowy frame and mesmeric dribbling ability to unlock some of Argentina’s meanest, most brutal defences over the last year. Having finally got a run of games in the 2016-17 campaign, in 2018 the talented attacker will likely be looking to establish himself as one of the top talents in the domestic game.”
There was perhaps no more impressive central defender in the Primera last season than Alexander Barboza and not only was it clear that the end of his loan deal would leave a gaping hole at the back for Defensa y Justicia but posed the question, why River Plate hadn’t given the 22-year-old a shot.
Physically imposing, dominant in the air and good with the ball at his feet, Barboza’s development in Florencio Varela under the guidance of Ariel Holan and Sebastián Beccacece has been outstanding as the River academy product has gone from a player struggling for game time on loan at Atlético de Rafaela to a potential future international in eighteen months.
After progressing through River Plate’s youth system to the reserve side, a route to the first eleven remained blocked. Joining La Crema on a two-year loan was supposed to provide top flight experience but after a handful of matches, the agreement was terminated and Barboza was instead sent to Defensa y Justicia. The success of this move cannot be understated and last season, the 22-year-old formed the cornerstone of the Primera’s joint-meanest defence, while also scoring five goals.
Barboza had clearly outgrown El Halcón and while Holan wanted to take him to Independiente and Valencia headed some European interest, the central defender is now back at the Monumental, battling to break into Marcelo Gallardo’s plans. Lucas Martinez Quarta’s suspension may have played some role in that decision but the likes of Jonatan Maidana and Javier Pinola will be aware that there is real competition waiting in the wings.