The most important game yet of Fernando Gago's fledgling coaching career ultimately ended in cruel disappointment.
Having dominated over the 90 minutes on Saturday, Gago's Racing Club side went down on penalties in the Copa Superliga semi-finals against his old club Boca Juniors, not only going out of the league play-off competition unbeaten over the entire tournament, but also losing out to their rivals having prevented them from recording a single shot on target.
Despite that setback, Racing and their young boss are in fine fettle, having bounced back from an underwhelming 2021 campaign to re-establish themselves among Argentina's top clubs.
Perhaps the ex-Real Madrid and Argnetina midfielder's most notable achievement has been to get the best out of every one of his players, and for nobody is that more true than Racing's new sensation, the explosive teenage talent Carlos Alcaraz.
A native of La Plata, Buenos Aires, Alcaraz came to La Academia's attention during an Under-15 friendly encounter representing his city, and was immediately offered the chance to join their youth set-up.
He has been around the first team for some time now, making his debut back in 2020 and notching his first senior goal against Union in November of that year, two days before celebrating his 18th birthday.
But despite his clear ability, the youngster struggled to make much of an impression in a faltering side, looking unsure about what his role on the field was as he was shuttled to and forth between the middle of the pitch and attack.
Gago's arrival at the tail-end of 2021, the third coach to sit on the Racing bench in the space of 10 months after Juan Antonio Pizzi and Claudio Ubeda came up short, would clear up much of that mystery.
Alcaraz was installed as the most advanced member of a dynamic three-man midfield and given complete license to push forward into the penalty area, while at the same time required to form part of Racing's suffocating high press.
It is a position in which he has thrived, catching the eyes of Tottenham, Arsenal and Wolves in the Premier League, as well as Inter and AC Milan over in Italy, all of whom may well be in the chase for his services once the summer transfer window opens.
The youngster represents decent value, too: while his release clause is set at €25 million, any bid approaching €20m would likely to be too attractive to refuse for his current employers.
“Carlos gives us great hope. But he has to keep learning and building his career,” Gago, who knows a thing or two about the pressure of being a teenage prodigy having clinched a €20 million move from Boca to Madrid at the tender age of 20, told reporters earlier this year.
“As a person, physically and as a footballer. There is a whole team behind him supporting and helping.”
Alcaraz gave an exhibition of his talents to send Racing into the semis at the expense of Aldosivi last Tuesday.
Both of the team's opening goals came courtesy of the 19-year-old and his frequent late arrivals into the box: the first, a header at the far post; then, minutes later, he peeled away from his marker just in time to receive Tomas Chancalay's low cross and drilled the ball into the net, setting the tone for an emphatic 5-0 victory with Wolves scouts reportedly watching from the Cilindro stands.
That double took the youngster up to five goals in just 17 matches for the season, and he almost opened the scoring in Saturday's semi too with a decent headed effort stopped by Boca keeper Agustin Rossi.
It is an encouraging sign for a player already standing out for his powerful, direct dribbling and prowess from free-kicks – a particular Alcaraz speciality is to sneak the ball in at the near post, a technique that worked like a charm in the Copa Sudamericana against Cuiaba.
For Racing president Victor Blanco, Alcaraz could well go on to emulate another former member of the club's academy who is pulling up trees in Europe and with the national team.
“Could he reach Lautaro Martinez's level? He is a great player, who debuted in the first team at 17. There is a great chance,” Blanco indicated in an interview with FCInterNews, while also suggesting that the strong relationship cultivated between the two clubs via the arrival of Martinez and through their shared idol Diego Milito could help the Nerazzurri get their man: “That aspect always helps when it comes to negotiating.”
For now, Racing will hope Alcaraz can continue his fine form in the Copa Sudamericana, where on Wednesday La Academia meet Peru's Melgar in a match they must win to stay on course for first place in their group and a spot in the last 16.
But if he continues on this dazzling path it will not be long before the teenager is bidding farewell to Gago and his current team-mates, and embarking on a new adventure with one of Europe's top clubs.