Argentina are not exactly short of attacking options. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria are all names that should strike fear into the hearts of even the bravest defender, or at least put them on their guard.
Yet despite all that firepower, La Albiceleste have found the back of the net just six times in their six matches to date in the South American qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. And what makes that stat all the more curious is the fact that two of those goals have come from a right-back.
Gabriel Mercado was not even in Gerardo Martino’s squad five short months ago. An uncompromising defender who is strong in the air and a born winner, he had shown those qualities time and again for Racing Club, Estudiantes and, latterly, multiple South American champions River Plate. It appeared not to be enough, however.
His luck changed last November, however, when Martino called him up for the trip to Colombia, in response to Facundo Roncaglia’s suspension. Gabe, who was enjoying a break in his home town of Puerto Madryn at the time, answered the call and turned in an excellent performance in what was a vital game for Argentina, given their lowly position in the table.
Retaining his place in the side, he relegated no less a figure of authority than Pablo Zabaleta to the bench in Argentina’s March double-header, in which he showcased another of his assets: an ability to score key goals, namely the winner against Chile in Santiago and Argentina’s opener against Bolivia.
“I’ve got a good goalscoring average because I’ve only played a handful of games,” he joked after the meeting with the Bolivians, in which he scored his goal in four international appearances, his debut having come in a friendly against Jamaica in February 2010.
Mercado has a knack of finding the net at vital times. As well as his exploits for the national team, he also scored the opener for River in the 2014 Copa Sudamericana final and in the semi-final of last year’s Copa Libertadores, and was Estudiantes’ second-highest marksman when they won the 2010 Apertura crown.
Revealing the secret behind that knack in an interview with the magazine El Gráfico a few months ago, he said: “A lot of people think about where the ball’s going to fall and not so much about rebounds. I look at both things and I try to anticipate things so that I can pounce on a rebound or get on the end of a team-mate’s knock-down.” On top of all that, Mercado is also an aerial threat at free-kicks.
His goals have triggered many a meme on social media, among them images of Mercado holding the World Cup aloft in 1986 instead of Maradona, or winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or, or explaining to Carlos Tevez how to score goals for the national team.
For the player himself, it all seems a little bit hard to believe. In the photos he posts on Twitter of himself posing with Messi, his body language is part team-mate, part fan.
Born two years too late to be Messi’s team-mate at the FIFA World Youth Championship Netherlands 2005, Mercado was a world champion at Canada 2007 along with Aguero, Sergio Romero, Ever Banega and Di Maria. Having started out a central defender in the youth set-up at Racing, Hugo Tocalli tried him out at full-back. It was there that he stayed, developing into a rugged defender. Explaining where the goals come from, he said: “When I was a kid in Madryn I used to play up front.”
Thanks to Mercado’s nose for goal, Argentina now lie third in the CONMEBOL Zone, having started the double-header out of the qualification places. “These six points have put us in a better position,” said the unexpected goal-getter. “We now have to work for what comes next.”
— Gabriel Mercado (@GabeMadryn) March 30, 2016
With Leo after the game. Thanks for all the messages!!! #VamosArgentina