The Inter striker is detested by many within the game, as well as by some of his own club’s supporters, but his numbers this season cannot be ignored
Diego Maradona is well qualified for his self-appointed role as football’s moral guardian. As someone who always kept out of trouble on and off the pitch, the legendary Argentine No.10 is perfectly entitled to judge Mauro Icardi for having the temerity to fall in love with Wanda Nara, the ex-wife of his former Sampdoria strike partner, Maxi Lopez.
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“Icardi is a traitor,” Maradona told Canale 5 earlier this week. “He can’t go to dinner with his team-mates and then get married to the wife of his friend. He’ll pay for what he did to Maxi.”
However, even Maradona acknowledges that Inter captain Icardi has the potential to become one of the most potent forwards in the world. “He will be a great player,” ‘El Diego’ conceded, before being unable to resist taking another shot at the 23-year-old. “But [former Argentina striker Gabriel] Batistuta is worth 10 Icardis.”
Icardi’s value is certainly more interesting than his values. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, only Alexis Sanchez has been directly involved in more league goals (24) than Icardi (23) this season – and the Inter skipper has actually played one game fewer (22) than the Arsenal ace.
Yet there is a reluctance among Europe’s elite to make a move for one of the continent’s most prolific forwards. Why? Because he loses friends as easily as he wins games. Indeed, it is not just Maradona who dislikes Icardi. Even some Inter supporters can’t stand him.
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The animosity stems from the September release of Icardi’s autobiography, ‘Sempre Avanti’ (‘Always Forward’), in which he claimed that after Inter’s defeat at Sassuolo in February 2015 he had tried to give his shirt to a young supporter only for one of the club’s ultras to allegedly intervene and fling the jersey back at him in disgust.
“This is when I start insulting him,” he wrote. “‘Piece of s***, you are acting all arrogant with a little kid to show off to the rest of the curva? Do you think you’re hard?’ In the locker room I am acclaimed as a hero because nobody had ever faced off that way with one of the fan leaders.”
To say that the ultras disputed Icardi’s version of events would be an understatement. At the next home game, they unfurled a banner which read, “You use a child to justify yourself and throw mud in our faces. You’re not a man. You’re not a captain. You’re only a vile piece of ***.”
In the end, a repentant Icardi held onto the captaincy – but will Inter hold on to him? The striker’s future remains uncertain. There is a question over whether Icardi is really worth the hassle and Goal understands that Inter’s ambitious new Chinese owners, Suning Holdings Group, are not only planning to strengthen their defence next season, with the acquisition of Kostas Manolas from Roma, but also their attack.
Icardi’s wife and agent, Wanda, has revealed that several Chinese Super League clubs are interested in his services, while there is mounting speculation that he could yet end up at Atletico Madrid – a move that has been mooted for some time.
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Indeed, Rojiblancos boss Diego Simeone is a known admirer of his fellow Argentine – but there is no reason why the long-time Inter target could not end up working with Icardi at Appiano Gentile. Certainly, the numbers suggest that Inter would be foolish to discard a 23-year-old who is evolving at a rapid rate into a more rounded centre-forward, as underlined by the fact that he has already equalled his best ever assists tally for an entire season – eight, from 2014-15.
Icardi has always been an excellent finisher, “an animal in the box” as Inter coach Stefano Pioli calls him, but he has been noticeably more involved outside the area this season. “I have worked with some great attackers, but Mauro’s stats are exceptional,” the trainer enthuses. “He does not just score, but also works incredibly hard.”
Even more endeavour is required, though, if he is to force his way back into the Argentina squad. Icardi made his international debut in a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in 2013 but hasn’t featured since, with new coach Edgardo Bauza even having to deny reports that Lionel Messi was blocking Icardi’s inclusion due to his friendship with Lopez.
Despite Maradona’s insistence that Icardi should only be seventh-choice striker (even behind the 43-year-old Daniel] Bazan Vera!), Icardi deserves a recall. Certainly, it is difficult to understand why the two main protagonists in this weekend’s Derby d’Italia are not both in the Argentina squad.
As former Juventus and Inter striker Roberto Boninsenga said on Thursday, “Mauro Icardi is better than Gonzalo Higuain. Mauro will soon steal away Pipita’s place in the national team.”
Whether Icardi is better than Higuain is open to debate. The statistics above suggest that Icardi is not yet as clinical as his compatriot. However, Sunday’s Derby d’Italia offers the younger man another opportunity to prove himself a worthy rival for the No.9 shirt Higuain wore in Argentina’s most recent outing, a 3-0 win over Colombia in November.
Icardi was the clear victor when the two last went head to head, at San Siro in September, with the Masia graduate levelling the game with a towering header before creating Ivan Perisic’s winner with a sublime outside-of-the-foot cross.
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Of course, this was not in the least bit surprising, given Icardi had already scored six times in his previous seven games against Juve, for Samp and Inter. Maintaining his remarkable strike rate against the Bianconeri in Turin this weekend would not only heighten the interest of Europe’s elite in Icardi’s services but also intensify the calls for him to be recalled to the Argentina squad. Bauza is even expected to be in the crowd at Juventus Stadium on Sunday.
Whether Maradona likes it or not, it’s getting increasingly difficult to ignore Icardi.