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Jan 29, 2013

Decisions, decisions for 'the new Messi'

"Barcelona sign the new Messi", ran the headlines on the inside pages of Argentina's sports sections. Set to turn fifteen two weeks after the signing, and hailing from Messi's hometown of Rosario, the youngster, smiling a little uncomfortably in the photo released to the press, seemed to have just too many great coincidences. And so it proved, initially; because this wasn't a story run recently, but rather almost five years ago, when Mauro Icardi was snapped up by Barcelona B from Vecindario, then of Spain's third-tier Segunda División B (and back when Messi himself was only 20).

Icardi scored plenty and picked up youth trophies, but didn't quite make the cut at Barcelona - nothing in itself to be ashamed of, of course. Farmed out to Sampdoria on loan, the deal was made permanent at the start of 2011-12, and he made a match-winning first team debut late that season, coming off the bench late on against Juve Stabia to bag the winner in a 2-1 victory as Samp closed in on promotion. He would later score in the play-off to send them back to Serie A. In Argentina, though, the early hype had been forgotten. Until the calendar ticked over into 2013, and Icardi suddenly caught fire.

If the coincidences of a shared city of birth and early moves (albeit for different reasons) to Spain seemed a little too good to be true, Icardi's latest trick certainly isn't going to dampen comparisons with Messi; hours before the best player in the world put four goals past Osasuna, Icardi hit four of his own in Serie A, helping Sampdoria to a 6-0 thrashing of Pescara which gives them hope in the relegation battle.

That four-goal haul came just three weeks after a double against Juventus, which brought a shock 2-1 away win over the leaders, and bumps his goal tally up to seven in sixteen appearances, with a further two assists in Serie A this season. That tally might be boosted by the recent glut, but for a 19-year-old who wasn't a regular starter until mid-November, it's not at all bad.

We'll have to wait and see what might happen in terms of transfer stories should Icardi keep this form up for the rest of the season, but he's already the subject of a tug-of-war away from the club scene which might be just as important. That's because Argentine media and fans are starting to worry about the remarks of Césare Prandelli, the Italy manager, a couple of days before Icardi hit four past Pescara.

"We hope he chooses us and not Argentina," Prandelli told La Gazzetta dello Sport on Friday. Italy, of course, is a tried-and-tested international career choice for Argentines past and present (they already have Pablo Osvaldo playing up front currently). The two countries' ties are illustrated by the fact that Buenos Aires is currently covered with party political billboard ads encouraging Argentines with Italian nationality to vote in the upcoming Italian general election.

Icardi, though, isn't only in Italy's sights; he's also previously turned down offers to play for Spain, insisting all the while - as he again did after Prandelli's most recent public admiration - that, "I'm Argentine". He did add, though, that "in football, one should never say never". Having already played for Argentina's Under-17s and Under-19s, Sampdoria refused to release him for the ongoing Under-20 South American Championship, which acts as a qualifying competition for the Under-20 World Cup (Argentina are already out, having failed to qualify from the first round).

Icardi's agent, Abian Morano, announced at the weekend that his client had received an offer from Italy "to play the 2014 World Cup". Clearly, they don't want to let this talent go. Icardi left Argentina at the age of nine, has Spanish nationality and an Italian passport, so he's got some tricky decisions to make. And even if he does feel a greater desire to play for the country of his birth, he'll have to balance that wish with the knowledge that competition for places at the front of the attack is greater in Argentina than in arguably any other national side.

At a shade over six feet tall, although not particularly bulky (yet), Icardi could provide some variety as a target man if needed in Argentina's attack, but the most notable silence so far around the youngster has been from Argentina boss Alejandro Sabella. A plan B is never a bad idea, but with plan A going so well at present, and Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín dovetailing beautifully together, Argentina are installed by a lot of bookmakers as third, or even joint-second, favourites for the next World Cup. They need to work on their defence, not their forward line. Whether Icardi would really get a look-in is a big question.

All the same, with the attention he's currently receiving, it wouldn't be surprising to see him called up for Argentina soon, if only to give him a short run out which would tie him to the country of his birth.

Once upon a time, Messi himself was the subject of similar worries, to such a degree that an Under-21 friendly was arranged against Paraguay, in Argentinos Juniors' stadium (Messi's shirt from that match is still at the club museum), specifically to tie him to the country at a time when Under-21 internationals were also binding. Today, of course, if Argentina want Icardi for the future they need to call him up for the full team right away.

With the clamour only set to grow if his development continues, it'll be interesting to see where Icardi's path eventually takes him. Whatever happens from now on, he's already managed one astonishing distinction; it's not every day that Lionel Messi isn't even the first Rosario native of the day to score four goals in a major European league. Five years on from those early reports, and a few weeks before he turns 20, Mauro Icardi has certainly made himself noticed.

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