In Buenos Aires, the semi-final achievements of the boy they call ‘The Spider’ were being compared on Wednesday to those of Mario Kempes, in Argentina’s ticker tape World Cup final, 44 years ago.
Kempes composed himself to strike home a bouncing ball in the chaos of the Dutch box and send Argentina 2-1 up at Estadio Monumental, en route to the trophy in 1978.
It was a similar challenge inside the Lusail Stadium for Julian Alvarez: a ball which, he related in the aftermath, was ‘bouncing badly’ as he ran through Croatia’s midfield.
Manchester City’s Julian Alvarez is among the stars driving Argentina’s bid for World Cup glory
The forward scored twice in the 3-0 demolition of Croatia in the semi-final on Tuesday evening
In Buenos Aires, his first was compared to legend Mario Kempes’ World Cup final strike in 1978
The 22-year-old’s description conveyed a sense of how he, just like Kempes, was desperately trying to hold it together in the furious, history-making moments before laying it into the net.
‘I just tried to keep the ball with me as I passed their players by,’ said Alvarez. ‘And then the goal came. It gave us peace of mind.’
It was his partnership with Lionel Messi which entranced Argentina in the aftermath. When Alvarez was 10, he had met Messi, his 24-year-old idol, who had agreed to a picture with him and his friends. The snap resurfaced on Wednesday and promptly went viral.
It’s fair to say that very few saw this coming. When Manchester City signed Alvarez from River Plate last January, they weren’t sure if he was going to be an established first-team player.
They kept him at the Buenos Aires club side, where his 17 goals in 25 games, including six in an 8-1 win over Peruvian side Alianza Lima in the Copa Libertadores in May, told Pep Guardiola and his staff that their £14million outlay may have been a steal. He was named last season’s South American Player of the Year.
Alvarez will have been familiar with the experience of scoring twice, winning a penalty and yet still being in another player’s shadow.
When Alvarez was 10 (bottom left) he posed happily with now team-mate Lionel Messi
His 11 goals in 17 games on loan at River Plate persuaded City the £14million fee was a snip
Pep Guardiola’s side have been very free-scoring when he has played with Erling Haaland (left)
That is what being in the same squad as Erling Haaland feels like at City, where by his own admission he has found deep-lying Premier League defences hard to penetrate. Croatia’s shambolic rearguard certainly bore no resemblance to his English experiences.
Even when Alvarez scored for City in the Champions League against Sevilla last month, the then 17-year-old England youth international Rico Lewis took the headlines for scoring on his debut.
But at City, as against Croatia, he has proved himself very capable of scoring vital, scrappy goals. He is as good as Gabriel Jesus at harassing defenders but has more of a nose for goal.
He and Haaland have started together three times for City and given that two of those games were the 6-0 decapitation of Nottingham Forest in late August and the 5-0 hammering of FC Copenhagen in the Champions League, that combination of the two up front does seem a possibility.
Guardiola has demonstrated with his use of Kevin De Bruyne in an advanced role that he is not averse to operating with two strikers.
The nickname El Arana (the spider), was bestowed upon Alvarez by one of his brothers, because he was so good on the ball that he seemed to have more than two legs.
Alvarez arrived at the World Cup as backup to Inter’s Lautaro Martinez but has displaced him
His two older siblings, Rafael and Agustin, are good players for Manchester side Abbey Hey in the North West Counties League First Division South — the 10th tier —with highlights including a recent 4-2 win over Stafford Town in which they both scored.
Alvarez arrived at this World Cup in the shadows once more, as back-up to Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez. He came on as a second-half substitute in the defeat by Saudi Arabia and the win over Mexico, before starting and scoring Argentina’s second goals against Poland and Australia.
His semi-final display leaves Argentina sure that he can fill big boots, as the striker Messi operates with. For years it was the role of Sergio Aguero, who came through the youth ranks with Messi and roomed with him.
Now he is set to play alongside his idol up front in the tournament showpiece on Sunday
It would be some narrative. As a football-mad boy, Alvarez was devoted to Messi like millions and there is a wonderful charm to the boyish tweets he posted, having no notion that he would one day play alongside him in a World Cup.
He said: ‘Messi, you are the best thing that happened to me in life’ and ‘Happy birthday to the best player in history. Thank you for so much, my idol’.
Messi returned the compliment. ‘He deserves all this,’ he said after the semi-final. ‘His growth has been the best. Nobody expected him to do what he is doing in this World Cup.’