x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Once Argentina's next big thing, Lopez looks to maximum effect for Al Nasr

This well-rounded, mature version of Maxi Lopez could well be the key to Al Nasr improving on last season's disappointing, sixth-place finish in the Arabian Gulf League.

Maxi Lopez rediscovered his scoring touch playing for Sampdoria and Catania in Serie A.
Maxi Lopez rediscovered his scoring touch playing for Sampdoria and Catania in Serie A.

As Camp Nou erupted in celebration, it looked like Barcelona had a young Argentine hero on their hands.

No, not that one.

Maxi Lopez, a €6.2 million (Dh30.2m) signing from River Plate weeks earlier, had just scored a brilliant equaliser against Chelsea in the first leg of their 2005 Uefa Champions League last-16 tie.

It was Lopez's first for the club and inspired a late 2-1 comeback win.

Fleetingly, the 21-year-old Buenos Aires native with the rock star looks was the talk of Catalonia.

Unfortunately, for Lopez, expected to join Al Nasr by the end of the week, that was as good as it would get in Spain.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea won the second leg 4-2. Barcelona would have to wait another season before claiming the famous big cup.

By then, Lopez, in the shadow of Samuel Eto'o, Ronaldinho and, soon, a gifted imp by the name of Lionel Messi, had departed on loan to Mallorca, having racked up a sum total of 14 league matches for the Catalan club.

It got worse before it got better.

A year's loan at Mallorca was followed by a spell at FC Moscow, both underwhelming.

Another loan followed at Gremio in Brazil, but it was only after a permanent move to the Italian club Catania in 2010 that the world started to take notice again, his performances attracting interest from several English clubs, with Manchester United allegedly among them.

In what was becoming common for Lopez, two further loan spells followed, at AC Milan and Sampdoria.

At the age of 29, he now looks set to make Dubai his latest home.

The long blond locks are gone.

This well-rounded, mature version of Lopez could well be the key to Al Nasr improving on last season's disappointing, sixth-place finish in the Arabian Gulf League. Few countries produce genius - and, very often, diminutive - footballers with such monotonous regularity as does Argentina.

Although Lopez is no slouch with the ball, he is from a different production line to the one that has given us the likes of Ariel Ortega, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Sergio Aguero and Messi over the past two decades.

At 6 foot, he is more Mario Kempes than Diego Maradona.

In that sense, he more resembles three big Brazilians who have thrived in the UAE: Grafite at Al Ahli, Ricardo Oliveira at Al Jazira and Edgar Bruno at Al Shabab.

The range of goals Lopez has scored, at Catania in particular, will give Al Nasr's success-starved fans hope that Lopez can at least emulate his fellow South Americans with simple tap-ins, solo efforts and spectacular, long-range volleys. At times he looked like Fernando Torres at his rampaging best.

A stunning scissors kick goal against Livorno in an April 2010 Serie A match stands comparison with the finest that some of his more famous countrymen have scored.

Two goals in the Sicilian derby against Palermo that year ensured cult status at Catania, were he scored a total of 22 goals in 66 league matches.

It was only a matter of time before the big boys came knocking again.

Al Nasr's new coach, Ivan Jovanovic, will be looking for him to reproduce that form against Arabian Gulf League defences in the coming season.

Certainly, Al Nasr's opponents will face an attack that bears little resemblance to the one that racked up a respectable 51 league goals last season. In addition to Lopez, Jovanovic has signed the 29-year-old Australian Brett Holman from Aston Villa.

Holman's favoured position is, conveniently, as a second striker or attacking midfielder, behind a traditional No 9. Such a direct formation would be a change from what Al Nasr supporters have been used to over the past year at least. Holman and Lopez will be replacing two departing foreign players who served former-coach Walter Zenga well last season.

Bruno Cesar, on loan from the Iranian club Sepahan, scored 16 league goals and the Italian Giuseppe Mascara, a former teammate of Lopez at Catania, chipped in with 13.

Jovanovic will have his own strategy, and playing to Lopez's natural strength will likely trouble defenders not as physically imposing, or tactically adept, as the ones he came up against in Italy.

Last year's top three - Al Ain, Ahli and Jazira - have strengthened their forward lines, but Al Nasr's capture of Lopez could trump the lot. After all, not many strikers can claim to have played, and scored, for three of the world's biggest clubs - River Plate, Barcelona and AC Milan.

Fans of the UAE's oldest club will expect big things from the big man.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

 

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