Lamela finally showcasing potential
It was evident from the moment Tottenham returned to preseason training under new head coach Mauricio Pochettino that Erik Lamela was going to be a focal point of the club's latest new dawn.
You needed merely to follow the official social media streams provided by Spurs to appreciate that Lamela was belatedly about to be given top billing ahead of his second season in English football, with advertising campaigns for the new home shirts featuring the Argentine midfielder who signed from Roma for a reported 30 million pounds last summer further evidence of his rising stock.
About time too. After their club spent such an extravagant amount of money to acquire a footballer whose prodigious talents were invisible during his first season in English football, Tottenham supporters had every right to expect a return on the investment, and finally it seems as if 22-year-old Lamela is ready to deliver.
"He will probably be speaking fluent English the next time he plays for us," was the less-than-polite comment from the now-departed Spurs head coach Tim Sherwood as he summed up the mood around Lamela at the back end of last season, with the reasons why the 22-year-old was not making an impact in the Premier League in danger of becoming an unresolved mystery.
However, those who witnessed Lamela's sparkling performance as Pochettino marked his home debut as Spurs boss in a 4-0 rout of Queens Park Rangers last Sunday will testify that the player Tottenham believed they were buying last summer seems to be ready to confirm his worth at last. Is the real Erik Lamela about to stand up?
WHO IS ERIK LAMELA?
Lamela announced his arrival as one of rising stars of the world game during the 2011 FIFA Under-20 World Cup. His displays earned him the predictable and unwanted tag of "the new Lionel Messi," yet being compared to his idol gave him a burden of expectation that no footballer wants to live up to.
A graduate of the River Plate academy, Lamela was snapped up by Roma following his heroics with Argentina's junior national teams three years ago and he made a big impression in the Italian capital.
So much so that when Tottenham considered their options as they looked to replace the departed Gareth Bale last summer, Lamela shot to the top of the wanted list of Spurs sporting director Franco Baldini, whose connections with his former club Roma paved the way for a lavishly lucrative deal.
Most observers view the inflated fee Tottenham agreed to pay for Lamela as an overpriced gamble, but every player they moved for last summer was overpriced as the world knew they were about to receive an 86 million-pound windfall from Real Madrid for Bale.
With expectations weighing him down as much as his persistent fitness concerns, Lamela's misery had begun.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON?
Lamela's reluctance to talk in public about his first 12 months in England and the evasiveness of his previous managers, Andre Villas-Boas and Sherwood, to discuss his ongoing absence make it tricky to assess what went wrong for Lamela last term.
Different injuries were reported to be keeping him out of the Spurs squad, as he spent plenty of time back in Italy seeking treatment for ailments that were never fully explained.
In the end, Lamela played just 11 Premier League matches last season, completing 90 minutes just once as Spurs were thumped 6-0 by Manchester City. He looked out of his depth, lightweight for England's top flight and unable to influence the game.
An expensive mistake? He certainly seemed to be.
Spurs fans were left to ponder why so much had been spent on him. It was not until the latest change of culture at Spurs this summer following Pochettino's arrival that Lamela seems ready to emerge from his shell and become the game-changer his club believed they were signing a year ago.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT THIS SEASON?
Sherwood was among those who suggested Lamela had struggled to adapt to life in England, with his limited grasp of the local language and his inability to make an instant impact in the Premier League cited as reasons for his anonymous debut season at Spurs.
Despite those concerns, Tottenham's move to reject the opportunity to reclaim some of their vast investment when Inter Milan tried to sign Lamela in June confirmed they had not given up on him. The reality that he is still wanted by his employer despite his muted first season at the club must have fuelled his self-belief.
"All players need to have time to develop at a club and some take a little longer than others," Pochettino told reporters last week. "It's especially difficult when you come to a new country.
"We try to give him some belief and maybe he needed the freedom on the pitch. You cannot keep players like this in the shade. They need the space to show what they can do."
WHAT CAN LAMELA BRING TO TOTTENHAM?
The player Tottenham believed they were signing had the potential to develop into a world star worth even more than the vast sum of money they paid Roma to sign him.
Oozing with pace, energy and flair, Lamela's left foot was a magic wand every club in the world admired, and experienced sporting director Baldini was convinced he was the wonderkid who could fill the Bale void at Spurs.
Lamela's gentle temperament cannot have helped his acclimatisation process in the English capital, with both Villas-Boas and Sherwood unconvinced that the youngster they had been presented with was ready for the robust demands of the Premier League.
After his less than impressive start, Lamela is now showing signs that he has the potential to be the wild card who could give Spurs an edge in games against the Premier League's elite five or six clubs, against whom they failed so miserably last season.
CAN LAMELA BUILD ON HIS FLYING START?
An encouraging display against AEL Limassol in the Europa League last Thursday backed up by an eye-catching performance against a disappointing QPR side in the Premier League does not confirm that Lamela is a Tottenham star. Instead, it has to be the start of a sustained revival that is continued in games when the chips are down against top-class opposition.
The Premier League fixture against Liverpool at White Hart Lane this Sunday will provide Lamela with an occasion to showcase his talents to a huge audience watching around the world and it will be the first big test of his newly rebooted self-belief.
That said, concerns remain. His seemingly fragile physique must still be a worry in the demanding Premier League and you wonder whether he will struggle to last the pace physically over a lengthy campaign that is likely to include more than 50 matches.
In addition, how will he cope in a physical battle with battle-hardened performers such as Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson this weekend? Does he have the class to outfox a powerful Arsenal midfield and guide Spurs to victory in the north London derby next month?
There are challenges Lamela still has to face up to, but at least it seems as if Tottenham fans will not have to wait too long before they finally get something from a club-record signing who has taken a little too long to step out of the shadows.