The Argentina national team's worst fears were confirmed on Wednesday when Manchester City's Sergio Aguero pulled up with a sharp pain in his left leg. Having failed to show anywhere near his best form in the opening two games, "El Kun" was withdrawn in the first half as the Albiceleste fought to a 3-2 victory over Nigeria.
The diagnosis was as bad as expected. As reported by The Guardian, a muscle injury would keep Aguero out of Argentina's second-round clash with Switzerland, with some sources insisting that his World Cup was over. After scoring five during the competition's qualifying campaign, his absence will be a bitter blow for Alejandro Sabella's men.
Or will it? From first impressions after Aguero's withdrawal in the Group F decider, the nation might just have the perfect substitute waiting in the wings with his own infectious enthusiasm and drive.
Paris Saint-Germain striker Ezequiel Lavezzi has waited patiently in line for a regular spot in the national team. "Pocho" has been involved with the Seleccion for six years after making his debut under Alfio Basile but in that time has accrued just over 30 caps, the vast majority of those coming off the bench for brief cameos.
In the Argentina pecking order, the hard-working forward has always had the likes of Lionel Messi, Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez in front of him to restrict time on the field. Which is why now, with "Carlitos" out in the cold and El Kun nursing an injury, he finally has the chance to show what he can do.
Lavezzi did not start his career pampered and preened like most international-class players. He learnt his trade in the unforgiving environment of the Argentine third tier known as the Primera B Metropolitana, composed of clubs from Buenos Aires' endless urban sprawl. Estudiantes de Buenos Aires, an obscure club located in the north-western suburb of Caseros, was his home for two years before he jumped to the top flight with San Lorenzo.
In the B Metropolitana, crowds are sparse, quality is limited and the hits from frustrated defenders are precise and blood-thirsty. Pocho was the target of every rustic hitman as a wide-eyed 17-year-old starlet, but he rode the kicks and the violence—at that level, even the fans are more than willing to break onto the field and administer their own justice if things are going badly—to smash 17 goals in 39 games.
That first experience appears to have shaped the former Napoli man. He takes the field as if under the impression that a lazy match will send him packing back to Caseros. He never stops running, never flinches from a disputed ball with a hulking defender, never backs off when things start to get rough.
His impact and enthusiasm was palpable against Nigeria, as he injected energy into a team that had more or less gone through the motions in Brazil. Suddenly, the attack had a man who sprinted up and down the flanks to chase lost balls, and the whole team appeared lifted.
Lavezzi y la broma a Sabella: "Le tiré agua porque lo vi demasiado nervioso. No creo que se haya enojado". pic.twitter.com/6z3KOrcB9A— Selección Argentina (@PasionSeleccion) June 26, 2014
Even Sabella had reason to chuckle when he received a jet of cold water in the face from the nonchalant Lavezzi while barking orders to the substitute. Pocho is a born joker, the man who sat on the Pope's throne during a Seleccion visit to the Vatican, the man who caused furore amongst female fans when, having received the call to enter against Nigeria, he stripped down to his boxers on the side of the pitch.
Having a player who can deflate the pressure with a laugh or a prank, on top of his obvious talents as a player, could prove to be worth its weight in gold in the decisive stages of the World Cup.
Lavezzi admittedly does not boast as impressive a scoring record as Aguero. He shows too much sacrifice, too much will to play for his team-mates, to rack up goals in the area. But his effect on the team is evident. With the PSG man on board, Argentina gain a man down the right-hand side who can mirror Angel Di Maria's incursions on the left, stretching the defence and leaving more space for Messi and Higuain to take advantage.
If Aguero, whose fitness was in question even before the World Cup following an interrupted season for Manchester City, does not make it back to Brazil 2014, Argentina should not despair. Lavezzi may not finish top scorer in the tournament, but his energy, enthusiasm and sheer force of character could be what the Albiceleste need to continue their run in the tournament.