Finding his feet after a summer move from SSC Napoli to Paris Saint-Germain FC, Ezequiel Lavezzi is determined to get past Valencia CF and make it to the quarter-finals.
Article top media content
Most footballers profess to have kicked a ball as a toddler and to have never thought of any other profession since. Ezequiel Lavezzi is an exception.
Ask him and he'll say, matter of factly, he doesn't consider himself a particularly technical player, that he's a "discreet" presence on the pitch; that there are many things he prefers to do in his spare time other than watch the game from which he earns his living. Twice when he was younger he almost quit to join his brother as an electrician.
Instead he is the proud possessor of an Olympic gold medal, won in Beijing in 2008, in the company of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tévez – all of whom have, like him, been hailed as the new Maradona. This season, the Argentinian international forward is at the heart of Paris Saint-Germain FC's stellar squad, with three goals in five games as they topped Group A to reach the UEFA Champions League round of 16 – including a beautifully judged chip over FC Dynamo Kyiv's onrushing goalkeeper Maxym Koval on matchday five.
It was the 27-year-old's burning ambition, as much as his sublime talent, that ignited the passion of SSC Napoli supporters following his arrival from CA San Lorenzo in 2007. Lavezzi was adored in Naples. His Mediterranean villa had a private beach he could never use because fans would hire or borrow boats and sail up to it to beg for autographed shirts or even a date.
He is happy now to be in a "beautiful" city like Paris where the thirst for glory is evident within the Parc des Princes, but where he can enjoy some privacy away from it. Happy may be too strong: even though he joined PSG last summer, the manner of Napoli's exit at this same stage of the competition last term to Chelsea FC – when he scored twice in a 3-1 first-leg win – still rankles.
"I've learned in this competition that teams with experience have an advantage. Chelsea were one of those last season and we paid for it at Napoli," he said. "Napoli were eliminated through lack of experience. Winning the home match 3-1, it's pretty unlikely you'll get eliminated by losing the return 4-1. But that's what happened. We had everything to make it through, yet we didn't. That's why you have to learn, draw conclusions and make sure you do things better, day after day after day."
Now his mind is on Tuesday's first-leg trip to Valencia CF, where his close friend Éver Banega anchors the midfield. The Blanquinegros's history is peppered with fantastic players from Lavezzi's home country. From Alfredo Di Stéfano and Mario Kempes to today's stars Tino Costa, Banega, and Pablo Piatti.
"I'm like Leo [Messi] in that I don't watch matches when I'm not playing, but I know Valencia demand a lot of respect," Lavezzi said. "They're technically strong, they like to be on the ball and to use it well – and, to go back to my basic point, Valencia have lots of Champions League experience. Banega is an example of what lies ahead. He's considered a quality player, but that's an underestimation. Éver is an extraordinarily good footballer."
Lavezzi wants to help shoulder the responsibility for ensuring his new club's expectations are realised. Winning the UEFA Champions League would be fantastic – but he is eager to repay PSG's faith much sooner.
"Our first stage in this tournament was good, but now it's at the stage where there can be no mistakes," Lavezzi warned. "Injuries at the start of my time here didn't help, I haven't reached my top level yet. I'm new, the team are still finding themselves, but I'm determined I'll soon begin producing really great performances like the ones at Napoli that inspired the fans."
A full version of this interview is in the new edition of Champions Matchday, official magazine of the UEFA Champions League, out today. It is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print, and you can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.