By Andrew Misra
If you’re anything like me, you were watching the second leg of the Copa Libertadores Final on Sunday evening only recognising a handful of players.
Few on the European side of the Atlantic take more than a passing interest in South American football, largely because we’re used to seeing the best players from the continent come to ply their trade on our shores.
Fitting then, that this fixture ended up being played in Madrid as a result of the deplorable violence in Buenos Aires on Saturday 25th November, when the tie was originally scheduled for.
Reminiscent of the joy the World Cup can bring, it was refreshing to watch a match with unfamiliar protagonists.
Amongst the familiar perhaps was Enzo Pérez, previously of Benfica and Valencia, who started the 2014 World Cup Final for Argentina. Or Cristian Pavón, who featured this summer in Russia for La Albiceleste and has been linked with moves to Europe recently.
Maybe you also recognised a few names on the bench: Bruno Zuculini spent three years attached to Manchester City but was mainly outsourced to a gamut of exotic loan destinations, including the Riverside delight that is Middlesborough.
Meanwhile, the biggest name of all, Carlos Tevez, sat in the opposite dugout at the Santiago Bernabéu. Alongside him was Fernando Gago, who knows these parts better than most having spent five seasons at Real Madrid between 2006 and 2011.
Mauro Zárate was also there, reminding us a) how useful an asset he was in a FIFA 12 Serie A Ultimate Team side and b) how easy it is to forget that he’s featured for four different clubs in the English Premier League.
The early exchanges of the game were predictably tight, neither side wanting to concede any ground after their fourteen-hour flights, with the stakes so high.
An early warning sign came for River Plate when Sebastian Villa found space on the right and sent a cross into the danger zone of the River six-yard box. The Boca number 18 was primed to nod in the opener, but River goalkeeper Franco Armani had detected the scent of danger and fashioned out a hand to gather the ball.
On the stroke of halftime, Armani could do nothing as the number 18 bore down on him for the opening goal. Seconds after River should have opened the scoring at the other end, a devastating counter-attack was launched by their great rivals. The 28-year-old ran onto a searching through ball before a delightful touch took him one-on-one with the keeper.
Seemingly none of the nerves of the mostly standing fans in the ground transmitted to the Argentine as he finished with aplomb, burying the ball into the corner of the net.
Un nulo. Advantage Boca.
The striker could not resist a little bit of afters as he celebrated by sticking his tongue out at River defender Gonzalo Montiel, the expression on his face illustrating the intensity that has been building over the last month when this pantomime commenced in La Bombonera.
Those familiar faces from the bench leapt up to join the man of the minute, the stadium quaking from the ecstasy of the Boca fans.
Although they lost the tie in extra-time, Boca were still 1-0 up when Benedetto departed the field in the 61st minute.
But who was the goalscorer? It’s something of a surprise that Darío Benedetto is not a more familiar name in Europe.
He could have been and perhaps, he soon will be…
Made for Messi?
A quick 14-month rewind:
11th October 2017
Argentina take on Ecuador in Quito in their final World Cup Qualifier. After finishing as runners-up in 2014, Argentina were languishing in sixth place in the group standings, needing a top-four place to qualify automatically.
A win was needed. Based on the uninspiring nature of their qualifying campaign so far, Argentina knew they would probably need the divine intervention of Lionel Messi to pull them through.
The problem, as ever, was deciding which of the embarrassment of their attacking riches to fit around the Messiah. Would it be Gonzalo Higuaín? Paolo Dybala? Sergio Agüero? Mauro Icardi?
Someone else entirely. Step forward Darío Benedetto.
Manager Jorge Sampaoli put his faith in Pipa to line up alongside their number 10.
After falling behind in the high-altitude capital in the first minute, the great Argentinian captain led by example, bagging a hat-trick to see them run out 3-1 winners and send them to Russia.
While he may not explicitly admit to his side’s reliance on Messi, Sampaoli’s strategy seemed always to be to get the best out of the greatest weapon they possess:
“We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo [Messi] but today he brought his great ability”.
Crucially, Benedetto seemed to allow Messi to do that. In holding his position leading the line, his dummy runs in Quito allowed Messi the space to run riot.
That appearance came shortly after Benedetto’s international debut against Venezuela in September 2017. After earning four caps, his dreams of inclusion in the World Cup squad were shattered by a serious Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury suffered to his right knee in November ’17 in a match against Racing Club.
That injury turned out to be a serious setback in Benedetto’s career. Indeed, his absence was so extended that Boca manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto almost didn’t include Benedetto in their squad for the latter stages of the Copa Libertadores back in August this year.
But Pipo’s path to partner Messi was far from straightforward.
Early Years: From pip to Pipo
Benedetto’s 1990 beginnings were humble. Like everyone else born in Buenos Aires, he set out to become a professional footballer from a young age. His city in Buenos Aires Province is Berazategui, a place that has the curious nickname of the ‘National Capital of Glass’ – something that belies the resilience of Benedetto.
Despite using the youth facilities at Independiente, the then skinny youngster started his career at Arsenal de Sarandí, based in the Sarandí district of Avellaneda in Greater Buenos Aires.
In 2002, at the age of 12, Benedetto was playing in the final of a prestigious national competition. With the team ahead, his mother Alicia suffered a cardiorespiratory infarction in the stands and later died in hospital.
As a result of the shock of this traumatic event, Benedetto gave up playing football. He left high school and started working at the construction site where his father worked. To fill the void where once football had been, Benedetto experimented with music.
His family, however, ensured that the dream of playing football never died within the youngster. Perhaps Benedetto himself wanted to honour his mother’s dream of him becoming a professional star.
After four years, he took to the field once more. Still balancing playing with working at the construction site, he continued to impress coaches and scouts with his hardworking attitude.
His professional debut came for Arsenal de Sarandí in 2008 in the top flight against Boca, which is interesting only from a retrospective standpoint. He didn’t feature much in the 2008-09 season, with just a few late substitute appearances.
A loan period at Defensa y Justicia, another Buenos Aires based team, for 2009-10 and the start of 2010-11 didn’t produce sparkling numbers in the Primera B Nacional.
It was Gimnasia the season after on loan, in northwest Argentina, which meant he actually had to leave Buenos Aires. A goal return of 11 in 19 league games convinced Arsenal to retain his services.
After this series of loan spells, he played a bit part role as his team won their only league title in 2012.
He then became a regular the following season, scoring 10 in 34 games across three competitions, as Arsenal won Torneo Final 2012, Supercopa 2013 and Copa Argentina 2013.
That included this ferocious, arrowed free-kick against Atletico Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores, which quite frankly he had no right to even attempt.
This sparked interest from the wealthy Mexican clubs, which is where he really made an impact. Indeed, the English commentators covering Sunday’s Libertadores final described Benedetto as a “CONCACAF legend”. As we will see, that is an oversimplification.
Making it in Mexico
Benedetto was purchased for €1.5 million by Club Tijuana in July 2013.
He had a successful 2013-14 that saw him return 23 goals in 50 games. After starting the following season brightly, Mexican powerhouse América came calling with a successful €6.6 million bid in January 2015.
He bagged a remarkable seven goals in three games for América in the 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League, leading to him being named the best player in the competition.
With América 3-0 down after the first leg of their semi-final against Costa Rican side Herediano, Benedetto plundered four goals and assisted one to lead his new side through. To cap that off, he scored a hat-trick against MLS side Montreal Impact in the hard-fought final.
He took that form into the following season but then experienced a loss of form. Still, he turned up when it mattered in the big games, scoring in the final as América beat Tigres to win the CONCACAF Champions League again.
However, despite back-to-back continental titles and a return of 26 goals and 11 assists in 61 games, many questioned Benedetto’s credentials. While this may sound bizarre to a European audience, it must be appreciated that the Mexican domestic league, Liga MX, is more challenging, not to mention profitable, to win than the continental prize. Indeed, their teams have won every edition of the CONCACAF Champions League since it entered its current guise for the 2008-09 season. It is not unusual for victorious Mexican sides to remain unbeaten throughout the competition.
The muted reception to Benedetto meant that he was never likely to stay at América for too long.
Meanwhile, Boca Juniors, the club of his childhood, were in need of a striker.
Benedetto for Boca
In July 2016, after almost 18 months at América, he returned to Argentina with Boca Juniors for €4.4 million. He has the club crest with “Esto es Boca” tattooed on the side of his torso. His willingness to play for the club is encapsulated by him taking a wage cut to go to Boca.
He hit the ground running, finishing top scorer in the 2016-17 Argentine Primera Division with 21 goals as he helped his new club to the title. That total included this outrageous long ranger against Quilmes:
The prolific form continued into 2017-18, staying at the top of the Superliga goalscoring charts by netting nine in as many games. In doing so, he took his calendar year tally to 23 in 25 games.
He was the deadliest striker in South America, but then that November ’17 ACL injury stopped him in his tracks.
It is widely thought that European clubs would have swooped in January 2018 if it wasn’t for the injury. Indeed, Sevilla, Dortmund and Roma had enquired about the then 27-year-old.
His agent Ruggero Lacerenza went on record to encourage those Roma rumours:
“Boca value him between €15m and €20m, we’ll try to please the lad, who has shown what he can do in Argentina. It would be very important for him to get to Europe.”
The tone of those words suggests that if it wasn’t for the injury, Benedetto would have been in Europe by now. History suggests that he can recover strongly from that setback and a move to Europe can still happen.
A quick, lethal and resourceful striker, Benedetto could service a European top-flight side well. He’s robust with his back to goal, capable of spinning away from defenders and unleashing fierce shots at goal. His deft touches in close quarters also do not go unnoticed.
His trademark cannon shots are matched by his passionate celebrations, which usually see him pump the air, or brandish his tongue…
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