Maxi Gomez, the "new Luis Suarez," currently taking La Liga by storm
On Sunday, Maxi Gomez did it again.
The burly striker from Uruguay scored a dramatic equaliser for Celta Vigo against Real Madrid, earning his team a well-deserved 2-2 draw. That is exactly what he accomplished at Camp Nou in December, netting the last goal in another 2-2 draw, ruining Barcelona's perfect home record and out-shining his role model, Luis Suarez.
"[Suarez] is my idol. I admire him a lot for the way he works. People in Uruguay say that I am going to be his successor in the national team, and I hope that will be the case," the 21-year-old prodigy said.
As his heroics prove, Gomez is able to shine on a big occasion just like the Barcelona superstar ,and it comes as no surprise to those who know his origins. After all, he had the guts to take huge responsibility on his very debut.
In October 2015, Gomez -- anonymous even to Defensor Sporting fans at the time -- entered the field as a substitute in the Copa Sudamericana last-16 second-leg fixture against Lanus. It ended 0-0 on the night and on aggregate; from there, coach Juan Tejera amazingly gave the youngster the chance to take the last penalty in the shootout. Even the striker's brother, Richard, couldn't believe his eyes. Gomez was stunned but didn't hesitate. He converted the kick cold-bloodedly and took La Viola into the quarterfinals. A legend was born.
With his self-confidence sky high following that victory, it was quite difficult to stop him. Gomez forced experienced star Hector Acuna out of the starting XI and proceeded to score 14 goals in 21 matches in the 2015-16 season. The most famous of them all was the winner against Danubio, scored with a magnificent diving header nine minutes into injury time. The fearless striker collided with a defender in a process and was knocked unconscious, but that only made his legend stronger in the eyes of supporters. They knew that Gomez possesses an ever-burning desire to win.
Gradually, Gomez became the hottest striker in the Uruguayan league, and comparisons to Suarez became quite frequent, especially after he netted 10 times in just 12 games at the beginning of 2017. Ovacion newspaper even ran the headline "the new Suarez."
"Maxi is a complete player whose potential knows no limits. He is very powerful and yet possesses good technical skills and ball control," Defensor Sporting coach Eduardo Acevedo said.
It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that Celta were able to sign him in May for just €4.3 million, an incredible bargain considering the current market prices. Top clubs were seemingly reluctant to gamble on a rather inexperienced player who had yet to make his debut for the national team, but the Galician club was absolutely delighted. "Maxi is a player with good movement and remarkable physique who always bothers defenders. He is more dynamic and faster than the central strikers we have and is exactly the forward we need," Celta coach Juan Carlos Unzue said in the summer.
Having worked with Suarez as Luis Enrique's assistant at Barcelona for three years, Unzue is known to have a decent eye, and he helped Gomez settle at the new club with lightning speed. The striker scored twice on his debut, at home against Real Sociedad, showing what a classy penalty area predator he is, even though Celta ended up losing the game 3-2.
The pattern continued on the second matchday, as Gomez found the net again with a bullet header at Real Betis (even though Victor Camarasa was later credited with an own goal because of a deflection), but the Galicians lost 2-1. In fact, only one of Gomez's eight La Liga goals helped Celta take all three points. That came in the 1-0 win over Alaves in September. That is rather unlucky, but it was obvious that fortunes had to change, especially because Gomez loves to perform against top teams.
He scored with another magnificent header at Sevilla before Celta lost 2-1, with their former idol Nolito netting the winner. Against Barcelona and Real, a point usually feels like a win, and Maxi was the hero, becoming the only player so far to have scored against both giants this season. He positioned himself well at Camp Nou to get the pass from Iago Aspas and put the ball past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen a month ago. On Sunday, he left Real keeper Keylor Navas no chance when placing the ball perfectly with his head, assisted by the industrious Daniel Wass.
Aerial prowess is definitely one of the youngster's main strengths, and his style and body build are somewhat reminiscent of Christian Vieri. Gomez prefers to look up to compatriots Suarez and Edinson Cavani, though, and was immensely proud to get a call-up from national team coach Oscar Tabarez.
"Sharing the dressing room with those monsters is very nice. I am going step by step, working hard and hoping to go to the World Cup. That had been my dream since I was a kid," he said ahead of sitting on the bench in the last two qualifiers in October. Gomez was given a chance as a substitute in two friendlies and looks destined to make the squad for the trip to Russia if his current progress continues.
One thing threatened his young career in late 2017, as Celta considered selling him against his will to the Chinese Super League outfit Beijing Gouan. The offer was reportedly estimated at €20 million, and his club found it difficult to resist, especially with Defensor Sporting pushing hard to complete the deal, given that they would receive 20 percent of any sell-on fee.
The salary was so good that even the striker himself was tempted for a moment, but he went on to reject the deal, and Beijing are about to sign Cedric Bakambu from Villarreal instead. That means that Gomez's meteoric rise should continue, and Celta are likely to receive a much higher fee for him in the future.
Confident, hard-working and outrageously talented, Gomez really could follow Suarez's footsteps to greatness. On Thursday, Maxi gets another chance to meet his idol at Camp Nou during the Copa del Rey last-16 second-leg after the 1-1 draw in Vigo last week. You know what to expect.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.