Turning 18 this week and having reports of Manchester City and Barcelona chasing your signature, Thiago Almada served a timely reminder why he is one of the most sought after teenagers in world football as Vélez Sarsfield secured a valuable 2-1 first leg win over Lanús.
Almada’s jinking run and accurate right-footed finish from the edge of the box sealed victory for Vélez from a chaotic, action-packed Copa Superliga tie that makes Gabriel Heinze’s side firm favourites for a place in the quarter finals.
Facundo Quignón had proved vital to Lanús finding a way past Belgrano in the previous round and the midfielder headed against the crossbar early on to set the tone for a breathless cup clash. Vélez would also hit the woodwork soon after but with a little slice of fortune would profit from the rebound to break the deadlock, Leandro Fernández’s free-kick striking the base of the post but eventually ricocheting into the path of Gastón Giménez to guide the ball past Matías Ibáñez.
Fernández was then involved in the incident that saw both managers sent to the stands as Lanús boss Luis Zubeldía was unhappy with the Vélez forward requiring treatment and his angry response prompted an equally fiery response from opposite number Gabriel Heinze.
Without the usual guidance from the dugout, Vélez switched off to allow Lanús an equaliser before the break. A quickly taken free-kick released Marcelino Moreno in the left channel and his cross found Pedro de la Vega, another of the Superliga’s 18-year-old talents, who nodded his first senior goal.
The half time break did little to cool relations and when a late Lautaro Acosta tackle sparked a melee it resulted in a red card apiece, Lanús’ Rolando García Guerreño and Vélez’s Lautaro Gianetti both given their marching orders.
Acosta would prove instrumental once more soon after when tripped in the penalty box and presenting Lanús with the opportunity to lead from the spot. Up stepped the usually unflappable José Sand but after sending Lucas Hoyos the wrong way, the veteran centre forward side-footed wide of the target.
A miss from the 38-year-old that was made all the more costly by a player 20 years his senior. Almada drifted infield to receive a pass and after slipping one challenge, side-stepped Marco Torsiglieri to slot the ball beyond Ibáñez.
Barcelona were understood to have baulked at Vélez’s $25 million valuation for Almada but if the teenager can keep this up, it may look like a snip.
Vélez host Lanús at the Estadio José Amalfitani with a quarter final tie against either Boca Juniors or Godoy Cruz on the line.
Lanús 1 – 2 Vélez Sarsfield
Later in La Plata, Superliga champions Racing Club began their Copa campaign and without captain Lisandro López were held to a 1-1 draw by a determined Estudiantes side.
Billed as the Milito clásico with brother Diego successfully adapting to life as director of football at Racing and Gabi settling in for his second stint in the dugout at Estudiantes, it was veteran Rodrigo Braña who stole the headlines before kick-off as the 40-year-old was almost brought to tears by Estudiantes supporters after announcing his retirement earlier in the week.
Racing were slow to get going and were perhaps fortunate to remain with eleven on the pitch as Pol Fernández only saw yellow for a late challenge on Nahuel Estévez but as the first half progressed so too did the champions. In the absence of López, Racing needed inspiration in the final third and got that from Darío Cvitanich as the 34-year-old’s wonderfully weighted cross found the head of Jonathan Cristaldo for the opener.
Unperturbed from going behind Estudiantes continued to push Racing after the break and after keeping goalkeeper Gabrial Arias busy, the home side eventually found a way through, Matías Pellegrini volleying in at the back post with the help of a slight deflection on the way.
Arias would be called into further action to keep things level and the keeper’s instinctive save with his legs denied Gastón Fernández a late winner as it ended all square.
The pair will meet again next Saturday in Avellaneda and Racing will be confident of setting up a winnable quarter final with either Unión or Tigre.