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Lautaro struggles as Argentina thrive at World Cup

Argentina forward Lautaro Martinez. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

Argentina have gradually found their feet at the World Cup, improving with every game, but striker Lautaro Martinez has been going in the other direction.

For most of the past four years, the Inter Milan player has been a starter for the national team, usually alongside Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria in a daunting three-pronged attack.

The 25-year-old, who has 21 goals in 44 internationals, was on the teamsheet for Argentina’s first two group games in Qatar.

But things have unravelled quickly for him, to the point that he found himself the subject of jokes online following Argentina’s 2-1 last-16 win over Australia.

Towards the end of the game, after Lautaro was introduced as a substitute, many fans felt Messi repeatedly tried to set up his teammate to score his first World Cup goal.

Afer one dazzling run, Messi passed to his fellow forward inside the 18-yard box with only the goalkeeper to beat, but Lautaro skied his effort.

It could have been so different for Lautaro, who twice put the ball in the net against Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s opening Group C encounter.

Both times, though, he was denied by an offside flag.

Argentina then toiled to create anything against Mexico in their next match, until Lautaro was taken off. Moments later, Messi opened the scoring.

For the final group game against Poland, Lautaro lost his place to youngster Julian Alvarez, who has rewarded his coach’s faith by scoring in each of his two starts.

After replacing the 22-year-old with 20 minutes left against Australia, Lautaro fluffed three presentable chances to kill the game.

It has led to a succession of memes and jokes flooding social media at his expense.

Some have even compared him to compatriot Gonzalo Higuain, who missed a chance in the 2014 World Cup final against Germany — which Argentina lost 1-0 — when played through one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Messi defends Lautaro

Both coach Lionel Scaloni and captain Messi have been quick to defend the forward.

“Lautaro is a hugely important player for us, he’s a forward, he lives for goals,” said Messi.

He may well have been mindful of that as he seemingly tried desperately to tee up his strike partner against Australia.

“Lautaro has saved us many times, I don’t want to talk about these details — that would be unfair on Lautaro, who has given us and will keep giving us so much joy,” said Scaloni, when asked about the striker’s misses against Australia.

Alvarez will likely keep his place against Netherlands for Friday’s World Cup quarter-final.

“It’s perfect that Julian is scoring and Lautaro will also score,” said Scaloni.

It is a different story for the two players at club level.

While Lautaro is a certain starter at Inter, Alvarez has started just three Premier League matches at Manchester City, though he has scored three times.

With Messi dazzling and proving once again the inspiration for Argentina, fans will not mind who else gets on the scoresheet, as long as the team keep winning.

But it is turning into a bittersweet experience for Lautaro and perhaps the making of Alvarez.

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