Barcelona lead the race for Lautaro Martínez but Man City may not find a better Sergio Agüero replacement

The port city of Avellaneda, just south of Buenos Aires, is fiercely either red or blue with only a couple of hundred yards separating historic rivals Club Atlético Independiente and Racing Club. Stadium proximity might not be as close but Manchester is divided by the same colours. City have reaped the rewards from the talents of one of El Rojo’s most talented graduates in recent times but as talk of a romantic return to Argentina for Sergio Agüero grows, the Citizens should perhaps look to a product from the blue half of Argentina’s unofficial ‘capital of football’ as a replacement.

Just as Agüero burst onto the scene for Independiente as a record breaking 15-year-old in 2003, the teenage Lautaro Martínez followed twelve years later in the blue and white stripes of Racing. Now both strikers share the stage for Argentina but the process of passing the torch has already begun and only a very special talent would be considered worthy. 

Lautaro Martínez has struck 25 goals in 66 appearances since moving to Inter Milan from Racing in 2018 and the 22-year-old is now one of Europe’s most sought after marksmen. A starring role for Argentina, a burgeoning relationship with Lionel Messi and a tantalising release clause of €111 million (£97 million) have a number of suitors eyeing a move for El Toro (The Bull). 

Man City will naturally have competition for the Inter striker’s signature and while rumours of interest from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea are little more than speculation during this uncertain period of hiatus, the reasoning behind such interest is clear. 

Single-minded and predatory in his pursuit of goals, Martínez has continued to step up at each level to a point where the youngster’s ceiling has far from yet been revealed. Racing and Argentina’s youth sides, senior club football, the Copa Libertadores, Serie A, the Champions League and international football have all been met head on with the same consummate ease. 

Eleven goals in 20 appearances this season alongside Romelu Lukaku have Inter third in the Serie A table and while the Nerazzurri would love to retain Lautaro it is suggested that with a contract extension rejected the Argentinian’s future lies elsewhere. 

Inter vice-president and compatriot Javier Zanetti has stated otherwise remaining confident of a longer stay but the statements of agent Beto Yaque cast understandable doubt. 

“He [Martínez] treats it as if it is nothing, because he is only focused on his club but there is great satisfaction knowing that he is doing things well.” Yaque told Radio del Plata. 

“His constant growth makes the best teams in the world notice him. Hopefully he will be rewarded for his effort. We have chatted with many people, but nothing more. There is nothing formal or serious. It is something dreamed of being the player in the market. He is not expecting anything, all he wants is to play and score goals.”

Scoring goals is already looking like something of a formality for Lautaro but the opportunity to earn substantially more at a club immediately capable of competing for Europe’s biggest titles is tempting. A contract offer from Inter worth €4 million (£3.5 million) per season is reportedly around half the amount that both Barcelona and Manchester City would be willing to pay. 

Vast sums of money aside, the preference is said to be Barcelona and for all the rumblings of boardroom unrest at the Camp Nou the motivation is evident – Lionel Messi. The pair have already shown signs of a promising on-field relationship and the opportunity to develop this further, in turn bolstering claims to be Lionel Scaloni’s first choice number nine for Argentina, only serve to strengthen this desire. As 1978 World Cup winner Mario Kempes opined to Tuttomercatoweb, “the train only passes once and while Inter are a great team recognised globally, Barça are totally different.”

Scaloni’s tenure in charge of the national team has been something of a mixed bag but among the shoots of optimism during the second half of 2019, Lautaro Martínez stood out. No player has scored more goals for Argentina in the 18-month post-Jorge Sampaoli era and the performances have rightly had captain Messi purring.

“He is spectacular, he has incredible talent, you could see he was going to be a great player and now he has exploded and is showing it,” Messi told Mundo Deportivo in February. 

“He is very strong, he is brilliant in one-on-one situations, he scores goals, he takes on anyone in the area. He holds the ball up, he pivots, he goes looking for the ball. He has so much talent, he is a complete player.”

Endorsements don’t come much better than that and it’s worth noting that not everyone enjoys such success alongside the world’s best player. For all his unquestionable quality Paulo Dybala made public his own difficulty and while the Juventus star looks to operate in a similar area of the pitch to Messi he is far from alone over the course of the past decade as one of those who have struggled to reproduce club form in the shadow of Argentina’s talisman. 

The same could be said of Barcelona, whose transfer dealings have been rather hit-and-miss. To varying degrees the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Malcom, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann haven’t quite met expectations and the Catalan giants are now having to prepare for life after one of their undoubted success stories, Luis Suárez. 

The Uruguayan is close to becoming the third highest goal scorer in the club’s history winning four La Liga titles and a Champions League since 2014. Neymar wasn’t adequately replaced when the first third of the potent MSN attacking trident was broken up and Barcelona will need to deal with Suárez’s eventual decline or departure far better. 

Injury to the Uruguayan has hindered Barça this season and while Quique Setién will hope to have Suárez back soon, longer term planning is required. And who better as a potential replacement than a striker who has already displayed a compatibility with Messi?

Impressively Martínez has shown a great adaptability to play with a number of different partners within a variety of systems, from Lisandro López at Racing Club to Romelu Lukaku at Inter. 

One player who knows Suárez better than most is Uruguay teammate Diego Godín and the Atlético Madrid defender sees a dual likeness, “He has something of Luis Suárez and Sergio Agüero about him,’ Godín told ESPN. 

“Lautaro is learning to use his body, to play with his back to goal. He is powerful, has a strong physique. He’s already confident, but that belief is growing with every game. He shows skills and does things of players with 10-15 years more experience.”

It is the mention of Agüero that should prompt City to do everything possible to outbid Barcelona for Lautaro Martínez’s signature. The 31-year-old Agüero is still scoring at a prolific rate and has a contract until June 2021 but has repeatedly stated he wishes to see out his career back at Independiente. That is of course far from certain with Argentinian football struggling economically and Agüero’s former club impacted more than most. 

However, like Barcelona, preparation is required and City will struggle to find a more suitable replacement. With an insatiable appetite for goals, Martínez is the model of the modern striker combining the ability to score a variety of goals with a readiness to drop deep and link play and, importantly, to provide a first line of defence through his incessant pressing from the front.  

If it hasn’t already happened, it seems only a matter of time before Martínez replaces Agüero for the national team. On being asked about the comparison, the former Argentina centre-forward Hernán Crespo told Sky Sport Italia, “Lautaro could well be the new Sergio Agüero.

“He’s not as sharp in his dribbling, but he is more of a team player than Kun, who often gets distracted and looks disinterested. Lautaro is always participating in the move, so he can play as a lone centre-forward or with another striker like Romelu Lukaku, even in a trident. I really like his mentality.”

Alleged faults notwithstanding, Agüero has certainly done enough to answer all those critics that suggested he wouldn’t be the prized striker for Pep Guardiola that he has undoubtedly become but the qualities that Crespo highlights would appear to make Martínez an ideal candidate to replace him. Finances may dictate it is not the perfect time for City but missing out on Lautaro could be an even costlier mistake.