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When it comes to producing strikers no continent does it quite like South America. Be it from a Samba infused backdrop in Brazil or a gritty backstreet in Uruguay, the roll call of top talent is almost unmatched.
Marcelo Salas, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo, Falcao, Luis Suárez…the list goes on and on. From different corners of South America they come but one thing remains the same; they all come alive in the penalty area.
The latest model off the production line is no different. Maxi Gómez has that cold look in his eyes when put in front of goal. Celta Vigo might have landed the next great striker from the continent.
Picked up for just under €5million in the summer – a snip in the current transfer market – Gómez has burst onto the scene in a manner few expected.
It all began with former club Defensor Sporting in his native Uruguay. Gómez’s debut left many onlookers aghast.
Back in October 2015, with Defensor facing a penalty shoot-out against Lanus in a Copa Sudamericana last-16 clash, a young Gómez was sipping water in the team huddle.
To his surprise, he was asked if he would take a penalty. The then 19-year-old didn’t hesitate. He told club captain Andrés Fleurquin he’d be up for task – no problem.
“I got a little nervous but there was no turning back,” said Gómez, reflecting on his breakout moment.
Few Defensor fans would have known who Gómez was before he stepped up in that shoot-out. His only previous appearance for the club had come against Universitario the month prior in the same competition – a game for which he had to apply for his first passport and take his first ever flight.
Even to the diehard Defensor supporters Gómez was an unknown. He hadn’t played in the club's senior categories, instead jumping from the fourth tier to the first with nothing in-between.
Gómez scored and received adulation from team-mates and fans alike. His career since has been somewhat of a blur.
Defensor couldn’t ignore his talent and even moved veteran striker Hector Acuna out of the starting XI. Gómez would go on to notch 14 goals in 21 matches in the 2015/16 season, including a dramatic winner against Danubio.
It was a fearless diving header, putting his body on the line for the cause. That has become a trademark feature of Gómez’s game, going in where others would not and imposing himself in aerial battles.
At the beginning of 2017 he struck ten goals in 12 games. The scouts from Europe flocked to see the muscle-bound striker.
His powerful, physical displays drew comparisons to fellow countryman Suárez. But Gómez was largely braun in his native Uruguay. The striker knew when he did leave for Europe, he would have to be much more.
One of those European clubs watching him in Uruguay had seen enough. Celta made their move. He was ideal for club. Young, with high potential, and at a price not beyond their means.
The Spanish club worked tirelessly under the radar to secure Gómez’s signing. So much so, they didn’t even discuss the deal with then coach Eduardo Berizzo. By the time Juan Carlos Unzué came into the club as the Argentinian’s replacement a deal was done.
Such was his confidence in the player, Celta’s well regarded sporting director Felipe Miñambres wanted Gomez no matter who was in charge.
Even his own belief in Gómez has been exceeded, however. Miñambres admitted Gómez’s adaptation to Europe has surpassed initial expectations.
The striker scored twice on his debut, becoming the first Celta player to score a brace in his La Liga bow in the 21st century. And by January, Gómez had shown his penchant for the big occasion by scoring against both Barcelona and Real Madrid.
His lack of fear or intimidation is notable. Gómez is a fierce competitor who uses his size and stature to great advantage. In the air he’s an immense presence. He times his runs to perfection and outfoxes defenders in the penalty area.
In January there was a key moment in his early Celta career, as an offer of €20m was put on a desk at Balaídos from Chinese side Beijing Guoan.
The Spanish club were lured in and decided to let the Uruguayan go despite Gómez’s own reluctance. A deal failed to materialise, however, and Gómez stayed to hone his game in one of the world’s best leagues – which is where he needs to be at this point in his career.
Celta, with their limited resources, can be forgiven for the being tempted. Gómez meanwhile can only be commended. He didn’t desire a move and saw his immediate future in Spain, where he’d made major waves in a mere few months.
Big offers will come again, except this time from Europe’s elite. Gómez seems destined, like many of his South American compatriots, to pitch up at a major club. He has that aura about him; the confidence and coldness in front of goal. He only sees the back of the net and does not second guess himself. They are hallmarks of a pure striker.
Gómez scored five goals in the first seven La Liga games of 2018. He is putting forward a convincing case in a World Cup year.
His game does need developing, but even his weaker areas, such as his link play, have been improved.
He combines with the talismanic Iago Aspas much better than in the early months, and moves more fluidly around the final third. He may appear bulky but when he makes one of those darts across five yards, his power is difficult to contain.
And that might be something people have to get used to. Maxi Gómez is going to the top and seemingly no one can stop him.