It’s about half an hour into Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final second leg tie with Benfica and John Obi Mikel catches Pablo Aimar. The Argentine falls to the turf in a dramatic fashion and a collective groan from the Stamford Bridge faithful descends as the words, ‘Get up you cheating bastard!’ emanate from the seats around me. Even from my view it’s difficult to see if it’s simulation, but what was clear as a day was that from the first minute, the diminutive midfielder had been pulling the strings in the quest to keep his side’s European dream alive.
Ten minutes after that moment and Benfica find themselves down to ten men, but you would never know that Benfica captain Maxi Pereira had been given his marching orders. Benfica’s star man in Europe Nicolas Gaitan was proving ineffective, so the following seventy minutes of football served as a reminder of what Pablo Aimar, now 32-years old was still capable of dictating a football match from his nimble feet just as he had done for Valencia and River Plate years before.
When I think of Aimar, I think of the big haired youngster who turned up at the Mestalla from River Plate for a big fee yet fitted seamlessly into the tip of the diamond midfield that helped temporarily break the Real Madrid and Barcelona stranglehold in La Liga, and made Rafa Bentiez’s Valencia side one of the most attractive outfits to watch in the Champions League.
That was more than ten years ago, and now I was a witness to a resolute Chelsea side struggle to a keep a leash on a player who buzzed around the pitch, making himself available wherever he could find room for his tiny frame. Others might have seen it as greed, but it was clear that his Benfica teammates valued his experience of unlocking a defence with just a single pass, and having taken over the corner-taking duties from Gaitan delivered a delicious ball for giant Javi Garcia to make up for his clumsy challenge on Ashley Cole earlier in the match.
In the TV coverage of the game Roy Keane referred to Aimar as someone who was ‘nearly a great player’ and to some degree the man who is often accurate with his blunt observations would be right. When historians look back at Argentinian football from the last ten years he may not be one of the first to get a mention, but domestic successes which include winning titles in Spain and Portugal should suggest otherwise.
The only blotch on an otherwise impressive domestic record was the surprise relegation with Real Zaragoza in 2008. A side packed with fellow Argentine talents such as Roberto Ayala, Andres D’Alessandro and Diego Milito seemed built for greatness, but the old football adage that a great set of individual players does not always guarantee success definitely played a part in the team’s drop into the Segunda division.
Maybe Keane’s comments were more directed at Aimar’s impact on the international stage. Yes, he racked up 50 caps for La Albiceleste, but invariably when you are playing in that trequartista role, the comparisons with the greatest Argentine number 10 are going to be made and that is perhaps where Aimar struggled. He is not the only one mind you. Carrying the ‘new Maradona’ tag and getting a personal endorsement by the man himself has been experienced by the likes of Riquleme, D’Alessandro, Saviola and many others. Surely the problem has in fact been with the managers who have been unable to build around such an abundance of creative talents.
There is of course one young footballer that may eclipse Maradona and having been privileged enough to watch the current best player on the planet in the 2010 World Cup quarter-final defeat against Germany, some will still argue that he must deliver on the international stage to certify his greatness. As we continue to eulogize about a player who breaks records on an almost weekly basis, we should remember the player that Messi once idolized as a youngster. The footballer that still waltzes around a football pitch so majestically in a pair of Puma branded football boots just as the great Maradona once did. You could say that without Pablo Aimar, we would not have the Lionel Messi that we know and love today.