Dan Brennan & Andres Garavaglia
As FC Barcelona took full advantage of Didier Drogba's dismissal to register a 2-1 win in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League last-16 tie against Chelsea FC, there was little doubt that substitute striker Maxi López was the star performer on what was his European debut for the club.
A €6.2m winter-break signing from Argentinian side CA River Plate, the 20-year-old scored Barcelona's equaliser four minutes after coming on in the 63rd minute, and it was his slanting shot after 73 minutes that allowed Samuel Eto'o to pounce to give Frank Rijkaard's side the lead at Camp Nou.
"When I scored my goal I moved my arms as if I was a chicken in tribute to River and their fans," Maxi López told uefa.com. "As everyone knows the nickname of River is 'The Chickens'. I wanted to say thank you to them. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be playing in Europe now."
The Buenos Aires club did indeed nurture the young Maxi López. He made his first-team debut as a 17-year-old, winning plenty of titles and scoring plenty of goals in Argentinian football, but he had no doubt that he was making a step up in the world by moving to Barcelona.
'Like a dream'
"The Camp Nou is a brilliant stadium," he said. "I thought the River [Plate] stadium was big, but this place is incredible. This is like a dream, everything is so different. The stadium, the training facilities, the press, the supporters, everything.
Sometimes when I am alone I think that I am dreaming."
Playing in the Champions League - and playing so well - was even more of an eye-opener. " I used to watch [Champions League] games on the box, so I have to pinch myself when I think I am part of it now," said the Argentinian.
Maxi López is not the first Argentinian player to join Barça, and perhaps worryingly, in Camp Nou team-mates Javier Saviola and Juan Roman Riquelme - both of whom have been loaned out to other clubs this season - he has examples of transatlantic moves which have not worked out.
"Like many people in Argentina, I really don't understand what happened with Saviola," said Maxi López of the striker who is impressing in the Champions League at AS Monaco FC. "Riquelme maybe needed some more time to adapt. I am sure that if he is given a second chance at Barça he will be a success."
Maxi López, meanwhile, seems to need no second chances having become an instant hit with Barça fans, but things could easily have been different if he had accepted an offer to join Italian Serie A side Reggina Calcio when he was a teenager.
He explained: "I was younger and didn't have so much experience playing in a top division and I wanted to have some time at River, I wanted to taste success there before being transferred. Thank God it's all worked out that way so far. I feel that I am more mature now, as a player and a person."
'They can be beaten'
Now he is hoping that that maturity can help him and his team-mates complete a win against Chelsea in London tomorrow. "They are very good defensively and have built a lot of momentum this season," he concluded. "The most important thing is that we have shown Chelsea that they can be beaten."
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