Rumours continue to swirl that Benfica intend to offload Andreas Samaris and replace him with Estudiantes starlet Santiago Ascacíbar. We spoke to South American football expert Jordan Russell to get the lowdown on the tenacious and talented young midfielder.
Santiago Ascacíbar was born and raised in the city of La Plata in Argentina, and is considered to be one of the most promising defensive midfielders in the world. A regular in the Argentina youth teams, he has long been considered one of his country's most interesting prospects, alongside the likes of Ezequiel Barco and Lautaro Martínez. He represented his nation at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ascacíbar is technically proficient, which helps him to recycle the ball in order to start attacking moves from deep. On the other side of the coin, he is a strong, brave and hard-working player. The 20-year old is a tough tackler and provides an excellent shield in front of the Estudiantes back four. In fact, he has made more tackles and interceptions (268) than any other player across the last two Primera Division campaigns. As former Estudiantes defender Agustin Alayes explained: "He wants to play football rather than comb his hair in the mirror!"
He may have a tattoo of Diego Maradona on his leg, but Ascacíbar is a very different player to his idol. Due to his position on the pitch, he is often compared to another of his countrymen: Javier Mascherano. Although they share the same grit and determination, the youngster is arguably more gifted than his compatriot. He has addressed the comparisons publicly in an interview with FIFA.com: "Fortunately, I have many years ahead of me to try to reach a similar level. Javier is a huge player and always shows it. I would love to be as consistent as him." Ascacíbar has also been likened to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté due to his diminutive size and insatiable workrate.
Maintaining the right tempo with the ball is anything but easy, yet Ascacíbar has made it look just that on many occasions so far in his career. And that is despite playing for a side which has often struggled for consistency. He is ambitious, making no secret of the fact that he wants to reach the very top of his profession. Estudiantes president Juan Sebastián Verón once said of his club's hottest prospect: "There's no limit to what he can achieve, and now he's in a learning process where he has a lot to give and a lot to learn."
Standing at just 5’7”, Ascacíbar lacks an aerial presence. He has no other glaring weaknesses, but he can be his own harshest critic, as he explained to FIFA.com: "I can be a bit obsessive about certain things, especially when it comes to my own game. Putting in the work during the week is the best way to improve. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself, which increases if things don't turn out right."
The 20-year old has been touted as the natural heir to Mascherano in the Barcelona side, but no concrete negotiations have materialised between the two parties. Benfica were credited with an interest in July, before Roberto Mancini’s Zenit jumped to the head of the queue in the past few days.
Ascacíbar's contract contains a €15 million release clause, but Benfica are believed to be offering around €9 million. As usual, Jorge Mendes has been leading the negotiations. It is rumoured that the Eagles need to offload Andreas Samaris before they can afford to make a decisive move for Ascacíbar, as space needs to be freed up in what is already a very large squad.
How he would fit in at Benfica
Should he join Benfica, one imagines that Ascacíbar would play as a deep-lying midfielder, tasked with shielding the defence and giving the team’s attacking players a solid platform on which to build. Ascacíbar should have no problem settling at the club, with compatriots Eduardo Salvio, Lisandro López and Franco Cervi waiting to welcome him.
Likelihood of a move to Lisbon
3/10. According to the Greek and Portuguese press, negotiations concerning the €15 million transfer of Andreas Samaris to Newcastle United have been progressing well, but the Greek midfielder remains a Benfica player. In the meantime, Zenit have made their move for Ascacíbar – offering $7.5 million plus $2.5 million in bonuses – and the Russian giants are now strong favourites to land the Argentinean.
Full name: Santiago Lionel Ascacíbar
DOB: February 25th 1997 (Age 20)
Club: Estudiantes de La Plata
Position: Defensive midfield
Height: 1.70 m
Preferred foot: Right