Lautaro Martinez’s perfect hat-trick is a sign that 2021 could belong to him

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Lautaro Martinez scored a perfect hat-trick for Inter Milan on Sunday, boosting the Nerazzurri’s title chances and restating the potential that saw Hernan Crespo once compare the striker to Sergio Aguero.

In mid-December, Inter played Shakhtar Donetsk at the San Siro in the last of their group games in this year’s Champions League. To keep their hopes alive, Antonio Conte’s men desperately, desperately needed a win.

A dreadful start in European competition saw them lose home and away to Real Madrid and draw with Borussia Monchengladbach and Shaktar. But in a tight group, beating Glabach in Germany in the fifth of their six group games had kept alive their hopes of progressing.

In addition to beating the Ukrainian champions, Inter had to hope that Gladbach were defeated in Madrid. Real scored two early goals, so Inter just needed to find a way to score.

But try as they might, they could not make the breakthrough. As the game drifted towards the final whistle, Conte was in need of a little invention, replacing centre-forward Martinez with former Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen.

Martinez was not impressed. As he made his way to the bench, he shook his head and gesticulated disapprovingly. As La Gazetta Dello Sport noted the following day: “He seemed to be telling his coach, ‘Why are you replacing me when we need to score?’”

Martinez’s annoyance was to some extent understandable. Inter did not score and, much to the anger of their fans, were dumped out of Europe entirely, finishing bottom of Group B.

That Conte took Martinez off was not a huge surprise, however. At that point, he had contributed just one assist and no goals in his previous five games – not what one might expect from one of the world’s most prodigious attacking talents. Martinez’s vexation was perhaps as much with himself as with his manager.

Whatever the case, in the games since, Martinez appears to have taken that negative energy and channelled it perfectly.

In the next game against Cagliari, Martinez was named as a substitute. Yet in the second half, he emerged from the bench to help Inter back from 1-0 down to 3-1 up, setting up Romelu Lukaku for Inter’s third.

The following weekend, he was again provider, laying on Achraf Hakimi for the opener. And in the last game before Christmas, he finally broke his scoring duck with a fine, first-time finish across his body from a Hakimi cross.

That must have put his mind at ease during the short break for Christmas and New Year, for on Sunday, rested and ready to go, Martinez was back to his very best as Inter beat Crotone 6-2.

Despite what the scoreline suggests, Inter got more of a game than they might have expected off Serie A’s bottom side and went behind after just 12 minutes. A thumping, right-footed Martinez goal helped them level before the Argentine put Luca Marrone under sufficient pressure to force an own goal to give Inter the lead, only for a Crotone penalty to leave the two sides level at the break.

Yet with Martinez on such deadly form, that would not last long. Just before the hour mark, the 23-year-old latched onto a Marcelo Brozovic pass and prodded a well-judged, left-footed finish past Alex Cordaz in goal. Lukaku then made it four, before Martinez completed his hat-trick with a true poacher’s finish, nodding in from close range after Cordaz had parried Ivan Perisic’s low drive.

After the game, Martinez was asked about his treble by Sky Italia. “Really beautiful,” he said. “I missed scoring. I dedicate the hat-trick to my daughter who is about to arrive and to my girlfriend.”

It was the first perfect hat-trick – finished with left foot, right foot and head – any Inter played has scored since Mauro Icardi’s treble against Atalanta in March 2017 and perfectly demonstrated the finishing range that led Hernan Crespo to compare Martinez to Sergio Aguero when Martinez was still a teenager playing for Racing Club in Argentina.

Martinez is comfortable finishing with both feet and, despite being just 5’9″, is deadly in the air.

The standards he sets for himself are exacting, too. After his last competitive hat-trick, for Racing against Cruzeiro on his Copa Libertadores debut in 2018, he was interviewed on the pitch after the full-time whistle.

“What a debut,” the interviewer said. “In truth, I didn’t like the game I played,” the 20-year-old Martinez replied. “Apart from the three goals, I missed out on a few chances that were really easy to finish, so I need to keep improving.”

Despite his assertions to the contrary, there were plenty who believed Martinez was already more than good enough to play at the top of European football, and a few months later, he was off to Italy for €25million.

Yet the Argentine took a while to fully settle at the San Siro – scoring goals, but in fits and bursts. Given that he has previously spoken of suffering from acute homesickness when he moved from his family home in Bahia Blanca to play for Buenos Aires-based Racing as an adolescent, that is perhaps not a surprise.

“I am very connected to my family,” he told El Grafico in 2017. “I missed everything, and especially Alan, my older brother… leaving that behind was very difficult.”

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Having now had time to adapt, apparently settled with his own young family, and well supported on the pitch in Conte’s 5-3-2 formation, we may well see him kick on from here.

In Lukaku, Martinez has the perfect strike partner and when the two click they conjure memories of some of the great Serie A attacking duos of the 1990s.

After the win over Crotone, Inter boast the second-best attacking record of any team in Europe’s big five leagues, behind only Bayern Munich. And having won seven on the bounce, they are second in Serie A, ahead of Roma, Napoli and Juventus and just a point off leaders and local rivals AC Milan.

If Martinez and Lukaku can maintain their goal-scoring form, Inter will stand a fair chance of securing their first Scudetto since Jose Mourinho led them to the treble in 2010.

In addition to potentially helping Inter to break Juventus’ stranglehold on Serie A, this could be a huge year for the young Argentine internationally.

He is already consistent first-choice for his national team, having fought off stiff competition for the No.9 role, and, pandemic permitting, he will have the chance to become the partner who finally helps Lionel Messi deliver Argentina a first major international title since 1993.

The rescheduled Copa America will be hosted jointly by Argentina and Colombia in June and July, and though the presence of fans in stadiums during the tournament remains an unlikely prospect, an element of home advantage will remain.

In both Inter and Argentina colours, Martinez still has some work to do to reach the standards set by his positional predecessors. But if his start to the year was any indication of how Martinez means to go on, then 2021 could well be they year the young Argentine starts to establish a legacy of his own.

By Joshua Law


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