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Nicolas Otamendi: Argentina's other 'Superman' who has been the World Cup's best defender

12:00 GMT+3 16/12/2022
Nicolas Otamendi Lionel Messi Argentina HIC 16:9
The 34-year-old will earn his 100th cap in Sunday's World Cup final - just reward for a centre-back enjoying a remarkable renaissance

Midway through a record-breaking 2017-18 Premier League campaign, Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola revealed the secret of his side's success. "We have a Superman in the team," he confessed to reporters. "Everyone speaks about players such as Raheem [Sterling], David [Silva], Kevin [De Bruyne], Sergio [Aguero] – and they deserve it.

"But if I would like to point to a player who deserves full respect for what they have done until now, it's Nico Otamendi. "He's one the biggest competitors I've ever seen in my life. He is so important. Without Nico, it would not be possible, what we have done."

The exact same now goes for Argentina's rousing run to the final of the 2022 World Cup.

That a 35-year-old Lionel Messi has played every second of every minute of every game is staggering yet simultaneously unsurprising. We've long known that he is not of this world. The normal rules do not apply to a player that is still making a mockery of conventional wisdom.

Just look at the way in which he toyed with the outstanding Josko Gvardiol, who is 15 years his junior, in Argentina's win over Croatia in the semi-finals.

However, Otamendi hasn't missed a single second either – and that's truly shocking.

It appeared that he was a player whose best days were behind him when City let him leave for Benfica in 2020 as part of the deal that saw Ruben Dias move in the opposite direction.

Guardiola retained all the respect in the world for the outgoing Otamendi, but understandably felt that the defender was paying a price for his "warrior-like mentality".

"He's a guy who plays with problems, with kicks, with muscular issues and always he's there - it's incredible," the Catalan enthused. "But we just thought we needed a younger squad. He is now more than 30."

And yet here he is, two years on, enjoying a remarkable renaissance.

Otamendi was ever present as Benfica went through two rounds of qualifying and then reached the last 16 of this season's Champions League as winners of a group that also contained Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain.

Not bad for a player that gave away a penalty on his debut. Indeed, back then the fear among Benfica fans was that they'd been told a dud; that Otamendi was past it.

Despite his strong start to the current campaign, there was also a feeling that he might be Argentina's weak link in Qatar. Otamendi, though, hasn't put a foot wrong. As the stats show, he's literally not made a single defensive error.

In issuing a public plea to Otamendi to move to River Plate, new coach Martin Demichelis labelled his former Manchester City team-mate as "one of the best centre-backs at the World Cup".

He's actually been the best, though. Otamendi has been a towering presence at the back, winning more aerial duels than any other defender (20), while the sheer force of some of his man-and-ball tackles have drawn audible gasps from the press box.

Furthermore, when Cristian Romero was initially struggling to get to grips with Robert Lewandowski in Argentina's crucial final fixture in Group C, it was Otamendi who repeatedly came over to put the Pole in his place.

What's really stood out, though, has been his contribution to Argentina's retention of possession.

Guardiola always praised Otamendi for having both the physical and mental strength to play in the Premier League. He wasn't just courageous in the tackle, Pep pointed out, he was also brave on the ball. We're seeing that again in Qatar.

We know he's a menace in the opposition area with his heading ability, and there was obviously the assist for Messi's opener against Australia. But Otamendi has been more important to Argentina's build-up play, making more successful passes (462) than any of his team-mates and pulling off more long balls (11) than any other outfield player.

These are outstanding numbers for a player that many fans felt was merely travelling to Qatar to provide cover for Romero and Lisandro Martinez.

On Sunday, though, he will make his 100th appearance at international level in a World Cup final. “What a beautiful madness!” he enthused after the semi-final win over Croatia.

This crazy journey could yet in heartbreak, of course. France have a formidable forward line. In Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, they possess players of wildly contrasting but equally menacing attacking attributes. Stopping them will be anything but easy. France always seem to find a way.

However, Otamendi vowed in Lusail, "We will try our best. We are a team of 26 warriors. We fight for the people and for ourselves."

It will certainly be a battle, but one they can undoubtedly win. Messi, after all, won't be the only centurion in Argentina's starting line-up on Sunday. Nor will he be their only 'Superman'.

Just like his captain, Nicolas Otamendi is defying the laws of physics at this World Cup and, if the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that he’s clearly not done yet.