This weekend sees the beginning of the endgame for the Argentine second division season; Nacional B has only five matches left to go including this weekend, and with that the pressure builds on River Plate to make their return to the Primera. Leading the way, as they have been all season, will be two youngsters who’ve been stalwarts of the side, and who, even though they’re playing in the second division, have nonetheless been attracting attention of scouts from some of Europe’s big hitters: Ezequiel Cirigliano and Lucas Ocampos. Here’s a quick rundown of the two.
Both are young, and have illustrious predecessors in their current roles at River. And both, of course, have had no little pressure to play under this season, with River playing in the second tier for the first time in over a century, and desperate to return to their rightful place in the Primera at the first time of asking. All the same, they’ve been key players for a River side which currently sits joint top of the second division, and which on Wednesday night beat Primera División side San Lorenzo 2-0 to go through to the semi-final of the Copa Argentina. Ocampos has been the replacement for Erik Lamela on the left wing during his first season of first team football; Cirigliano has stepped into the boots previously filled by River Plate legend and current manager, Matías Almeyda.
Cirigliano, now 20 years old, actually played alongside Almeyda during River’s relegation season, at the base of what was normally a 4-2-2-1 with two deep-lying midfielders. Whilst normally one would expect one such midfielder to be an expert in breaking up the play, and his partner to be more comfortable on the ball, though, the truth is that Ciri, as he’s known here, is almost a clone of the man who initially partnered him and now manages him. He made his first team debut just over two years ago, and impressed for River both last season and especially this, after stepping up to fill the role of prime central midfielder for the side.
In Argentina, the number 5 is a position considered almost as key as the number 10. It takes various guises, and among number 5s to come out of River’s system over the last decade or so, we see Javier Mascherano. If Masche is at one end of the spectrum though – a largely defensive midfielder who wins the ball and gives it to more creative team-mates – Cirigliano is a different beast entirely. It’s widely known that Manchester City’s scouts have watched him in action in recent weeks and very much liked what they saw – as mentioned by Joel Richards a week ago on Hand Of Pod He’s also interested various clubs in Italy and Spain. He’s very comfortable on the ball, and his creation from deep and patient passing style has drawn comparisons, style-wise, with Barcelona midfielder Xavi. I feel it only fair to Mascherano to state that early in his career, when he was at River, even he was a more dynamic, box-to-box player than he’s since become known as in Europe (and I know of what I speak; I was present when Mascherano made his first team debut for River, back in 2003).
Ocampos hadn’t played for River before the current season, but was already being talked about by the club’s fans before he did so. As recently as March this year, interest was reported from Barcelona, and Manchester United and Juventus are among the other major European clubs known to be interested in him. When Boca Juniors sold Fernando Gago to Real Madrid, many of their fans weren’t worried because they – and the coaches – felt there was a better talent coming through behind him in the form of Éver Banega. Similar thinking has followed at River, with the blow of Erik Lamela’s sale to Roma considerably softened by the knowledge that Ocampos seemed, if anything, to be even better. The biggest shame for River fans is that Ocampos’ breakthrough season in the Nacional B has been so brilliant they might never get to see him in the top flight for the club.
He started out at Quilmes, but moved to River after featuring for Argentina in the 2009 Under-15 South American Championship, and quickly rose through the youth ranks at the club, playing as a striker. 6’3″ tall at the age of just 17, he surely has some filling out to do but is already a strapping figure of a lad, and seems to have positional and tactical adaptability in his armoury too – he may be a striker first and foremost, but all his appearances this season for River have been on the left wing.
Ocampos has managed to be almost an ever-present for River this season until the last couple of matches when he’s been rested to prevent burnout going into the run-in; no mean feat considering River have one of the strongest attacking lineups in Argentina (and never mind that they’re in the second tier!). If he does plan on returning to the centre forward role in the future, then the fact he’s shared a training ground during this season with the likes of Fernando Cavenaghi and David Trezeguet can hardly have done his future prospects any harm.
These are, of course, two more prospects who seem destined to leave Argentina at a very young age, and as ever it seems a great shame that fans here won’t get to see more of them in their own league before they hit the big time in Europe. I’m a declared River fan, of course, but I’m on record as saying this about other clubs’ players as well; I wish economic necessity didn’t mean letting players of these talents go quite as soon. I can’t help thinking their development – Ocampos’ in particular given he’s still only 17 – would be aided by keeping them in Argentina even for just half a season or a season longer. All the same, though, with multiple appearances each for for the Under 17 national team, as well as for the Under 15s (Ocampos) and the Under 20s (Cirigliano), these are clearly players with bright futures.
It’s always a little dangerous to judge players purely by highlight reels, but at the same time plenty of people will no doubt want to take a look at them. Here, then, are a couple of videos for you.
Here’s one showing Cirigliano’s no-nonsense tackling style, as well as his ability to contribute unfussily to the play further forward in the midfield. These clips are all taken from the first half of the 2011-12 season.
And here’s one of Lucas Ocampos’ ‘skills and goals’ so far in 2011-12.
We have, of course, discussed both players previously on Hand Of Pod, the internet’s best (oh okay, only) English-language Argentine football podcast. We will no doubt be doing so at least once or twice more between now and the end of the season, so if you haven’t already become a listener, join us now (that’s a link to the HOP blog just there, in case you hadn’t noticed).
You can follow the latest news from the selección and Argentina’s foreign legion of players, as well as the domestic championship, River Plate’s first second division campaign in over a century and the ever entertaining/tragic/infuriating capers of Julio Grondona & chums direct from Buenos Aires with HEGS on Twitter. If you’ve not signed up yet you can do so here. You can also join the official HEGS Facebook group, to keep up to date with the latest posts on the blog and discuss things with other fans. You’ll find it here. And remember to bookmark Hand Of Pod, our Argentine football podcast, or if you prefer you can subscribe to it on iTunes here.