Resurgent Lo Celso ready to shine at Tottenham
Giovani Lo Celso, the "little monkey" to his team-mates and once the "ruby of Argentinian football", became on Thursday the next great hope for Tottenham and Mauricio Pochettino.
Only a few years ago, a pale-faced teenager from Rosario with a wand of a left foot was being circled as the most exciting talent since Lionel Messi to come out of Argentina.
Real Betis could receive up to 60 million euros if the transfer is made permanent but a 16-million-euro deal for a one-year loan first allows Spurs a closer look at one of the world's most exhilarating creative players.
As a youngster, Pablo Aimar and Juan Roman Riquelme were the ones Lo Celso was told to imitate by his mentor, Jorge Griffa, the former Atletico Madrid and Espanyol player, whose prestigious academy he joined aged 12 in 2008.
Griffa had helped nurture the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Carlos Tevez and Maxi Rodriguez, as well as a young Pochettino, whose own fledgling career began with Griffa knocking on his door and persuading him to sign for Newell's Old Boys.
Lo Celso grew up in the neighbourhood of Sarmiento, 15 miles away from Pochettino's home town of Murphy, but it was rivals Rosario Central, not Newell's, whom he signed for in 2010.
Central was the team Lo Celso had supported, served as a mascot and then watched as a ball-boy inside El Gigante de Arroyito. Everton were among those to make an early approach yet Lo Celso's father, who gave him his nickname 'Monito', 'the little monkey', told him to stay and in 2015, his 19-year-old son made his senior debut.
"I lived five blocks from the stadium," Lo Celso told Argentinian magazine El Grafico in 2016. "Playing with the first team was a dream come true."
His idol is another left-footer from Rosario, not Messi, but Angel Di Maria, whose parents are family friends.
"I like him a lot because he is so dynamic," Lo Celso said. "He's a winger that threatens the goal, who assists his teammates, and who is very difficult to get the ball off."
- 'Argentine ruby' -
By 2016, the pressure on Central to sell was too much, the only doubt his price and destination.
"He is the new ruby of Argentine football," wrote El Grafico. "He is the most talented player in Argentina," said Central vice-president Ricardo Carloni.
Paris Saint-Germain agreed and coach Unai Emery was impressed too, not just by Lo Celso's attacking prowess but his application and hunger.
"He is an example for everyone," Emery said. "He works with tenacity and humility."
Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani meant opportunities up front would be limited but Emery was convinced Lo Celso's passing and energy could be used in midfield, where he tried him as a playmaking pivot.
The experiment brought mixed results and ended with a chastening Champions League defeat away at Real Madrid, for which Lo Celso's drifting performance was blamed. "Out of place and overwhelmed, he was a drag on his team," wrote Diario Sport.
Emery was sacked and when Thomas Tuchel replaced him, Lo Celso fell out of favour. With six goals and nine assists in 54 games, he took the chance for a fresh start last season at Betis.
It worked, their free-flowing style under Quique Setien suiting him, as did a more advanced, central position behind the strikers. There were 14 goals in 39 games and a string of dazzling displays, marked by driving runs, dancing feet, lofted through-balls and bending shots into the corner.
His best was perhaps against Barcelona, when he scored in a 4-3 win at the Camp Nou. "He is immense," said Setien in October. "He just gets better and better."
PSG considered taking Lo Celso back and while Betis made the loan permanent in April for around 25 million euros, the suspicion remained they might not keep him for long.
Europe's biggest clubs were ready to wait another year but Tottenham jumped early and on Wednesday, Lo Celso said goodbye to his team-mates and then to the Betis fans at the Benito Villamarin.
They chanted for him to stay but it was too late. There for a year and gone in a flash.
© 2019 AFP