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Meet Nahuel Molina: The top-scoring defender in Europe linked with Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and Juventus

12:00 BST 21/05/2022
Nahuel Molina Udinese Cagliari Serie A 2021-22
In a GOAL exclusive, the right-back reveals what it's like playing alongside childhood hero Lionel Messi and his admiration of Trent Alexander-Arnold

When it comes to naming his childhood hero, Nahuel Molina doesn't hesitate for a second.

"Messi!" he tells GOAL, his eyes immediately lighting up, "because I wasn't a right-back when I was younger.

"I played further forward, out wide, so I loved Messi, and not because I was similar to him or anything, just because he was such a great player, on a whole other level to everyone else!"

Perfectly understandable, then, that when Molina was called up by Argentina for the first time last year and had "the good fortune" to train and play alongside his idol, he was dumbstruck.

"Like a dream come true," he says, "because I watched him on TV all the time when I was young and was just so inspired by him."

It certainly comes across in his game. Molina is the very epitome of the modern full-back, as comfortable attacking the opposition penalty area as he is defending his own.

"There are so many players in my position that I study, but probably Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James more than most," he reveals. "But, in Serie A, I also really like watching Theo Hernandez and Ivan Perisic.

"There are a lot of great attacking full-backs out there but I really like those four. I watch them to see what I can take from them and put in my own game.

"I'm always thinking what I can do to take another step forward, both offensively and defensively."

Dare we say it, though, the likes of Alexander-Arnold and James might even pick up a thing or two from Molina, at least when it comes to finishing.

After all, the 24-year-old Argentine is poised to end the 2021-22 season as the highest-scoring defender in Europe's 'Big Five' leagues.

Going into the final round of games, he's scored seven times in 34 Serie A outings, wowing all and sundry with his offensive prowess.

Two attributes stand out above all others, though.

Firstly, there's his composure. Take, for example, his goal against Cagliari last month, with Molina chipping goalkeeper Alessio Cragno from all of 30 metres out with jarring nonchalance.

Then, there's the fact that three of his goals have come with his supposedly weaker left foot. Again, we're not talking about hit-and-hope efforts here either.

Just look at the way he coolly swept the ball home from the edge of the area in the 1-1 draw with Roma at the Dacia Arena in March; casual confirmation that he clearly learned a lot during all of those years marvelling at Messi's left peg.

So, with bucaneering full-backs very much en vogue, Molina has inevitably been the subject of incessant transfer talk for months now.

Juventus believe he could be the answer to their search for a successor to Juan Cuadrado.

However, it has been claimed in the Spanish press that Diego Simeone is interested in bringing his compatriot to Atletico Madrid, just a year after signing another Argentine, Rodrigo de Paul, from Udinese.

Molina openly admits that he admires Simeone – "You see the way he is with his team, the relationship he has with his players, it's special."

However, there is also a rumour doing the rounds in Italy that Arsenal will try to negotiate a mutually beneficial transfer that would see Pablo Mari remain at Udinese past the expiration of his loan deal, and Molina move to north London.

The man at the centre of all of the speculation is, naturally, giving little away.

"It's obviously a dream of mine to play for one of Europe's biggest clubs, and it's also been a dream since I was a kid to play in the Champions League," he acknowledges.

"But I'm here at Udinese and we still have one more game to go – a very difficult game too (against relegation-threatened Salernitana on Sunday) – so the transfer speculation is a matter for the club.

"I'm very calm. I'm just happy with how not only my season has gone, but also the team's."

Molina's unwillingness to add fuel to the fire motivated by his gratitude to Udinese for the way in which they have looked after him since his arrival in Italy in 2020.

Back then, he was still coming to terms with the nature of his exit from Boca Juniors.

Having come through the club's academy, his intention had always been to stay at the Bombonera, but no new deal was agreed before he joined Rosario Central during the final year of his Boca contract.

"We didn't have the chance to renew, and that's it," he says matter of factly. "I wanted to sign an extension.

"I had I broken into the first team. I didn't play much, though, just a couple of games, and then I went on loan twice (to Defensa y Justicia, and then Rosario).

“But I obviously wanted to stay at Boca. But we didn't find an agreement and so I ended up at Udinese, which was obviously a pleasure for me."

Indeed, it didn't take him long at all to acclimatise to the Italian game, something he attributes to Udinese – a club renowned for nurturing overseas talent, but South American stars in particular.

"It's obviously no coincidence – they’ve been doing this for years, helping players improve," he enthuses.

"The club does great work with players behind the scenes, particularly new players from outside Italy. As soon as you arrive here, they make you feel comfortable.

“Obviously, I was lucky that when I arrived, there were also other Argentinians, like Rodrigo de Paul and Juan Musso, but I also got on well right away with the rest of the players.

"But it's also about more than that: there's the club itself, the structure, the staff, the way they look after everyone so that every player can produce his best form on the pitch."

He's certainly done that, with Molina earning a call-up for Argentina's 2021 Copa America campaign at the end of his first season in Serie A.

He featured in five games as the Albiceleste triumphed on Brazilian soil, which obviously would have made it a significant enough event in itself, but there was also the added bonus that victory in Rio last July ended Messi's wait for a first major international triumph.

So, how did the great man react? Did Molina see an outpouring of relief more than joy in Messi? Has it changed his whole demeanour?

"Obviously, Leo, and so many others in that squad, had played so many big games over the years with the national teams, and lost some important finals," Molina explains.

"So, it was definitely a bit pleasure for them to win the Copa America, without a doubt.

"But I don't think it has changed Messi. It's not like he's more relaxed now, that the pressure is off or something like that, because he always puts pressure on himself to win.

"That's why he's so good. He always wants to win: every single tournament, every single game, even every single training session!

"It's incredible, but us Argentines are probably all like that – we want to win everything!"

Which obviously begs the question: can the Albiceleste follow up their long overdue Copa success by claiming a first World Cup since 1986 by winning in Qatar later this summer?

"It's difficult," he muses. "It's a World Cup, you know? I really don't know if we can win or not – there are so many strong teams, and little difference between them. So, we'll go game by game, and see what happens.

"But we have a great squad, no doubt. We probably have more than two players for each position. Some of the players that miss out on the squads are incredible.

"So, for this reason, it's just amazing for me to be in the squad right now, and it will be a dream if I make it to the World Cup too."

And for him to lift the trophy alongside Messi would obviously be pretty special...

"That would just make it even better," Molina says, quick as a flash, those eyes lighting back up again.