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Rosario’s reputation as one of the best producers of footballing talent is well known around the globe with the likes of Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta and Angel Di Maria all having emerged from Argentina’s third city. Two clubs – Central and Newell’s – split the football mad city’s allegiances in half, creating arguably the fiercest rivalry in the country. Simply put, football runs in Rosario’s veins.
Currently there is a whole host of attacking talent hailing from the region. Mauro Icardi and Angel Correa are native rosarinos, while Franco Cervi has got hearts all a flutter with his performances for Central this season. However, it is Newell’s Roma-bound teenage striker Ezequiel Ponce who has got the blood pumping over in the red and black barrios.
Ezequiel Ponce may have only just turned 18 but has been talked about for some time after becoming the youngest player to make their debut for Newell’s back in October 2013. Having joined his hometown club at the age of 8, Ponce had been garnering a reputation as a prolific marksman in the youth divisions, including a 35 goal haul for the under-15s in 2012. Another 22 goals the following season saw him fast tracked to the first team by manager Alberto Berti and shortly after he made his historic debut as a substitute against Quilmes.
There was an element of good fortune surrounding the timing of his ascension to the senior set up. Ignacio Scocco, so brilliant during the 2012/2013 campaign, had been sold to Brazilian side Internacional and the ageing David Trezeguet could not be relied upon to play week in week out. Thus, Ponce’s chance came calling a tad earlier that perhaps would have been expected and he found himself as a starter going into the 2014 Torneo Final.
Ponce scored his first goal for Newell’s six games into the season against Racing and would go on to net against Tigre and hit a brace against All Boys. 4 goals in 15 appearances may not seem an incredible return but bearing in mind Ponce had only just turned 17 it was a promising start to life in the Primera. What’s more, the nature of his performances really grabbed everyone’s attention as Ponce seemed to improve with each week. The boy was quickly becoming a man. In particular, his performance against Velez displayed his already well rounded game as he dragged defenders around with his movement and more than stood up to the physical challenge of Sebastian Dominguez and Fernando Tobio. Furthermore, he was picking up some valuable Libertadores experience too and his stock had skyrocketed after his breakthrough season.
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However, a stress fracture to one of his metatarsals – the dreaded injury for all English fans – during a pre-season friendly against Douglas Haig ruled him out for 3 months and meant that Ponce missed virtually all of the Torneo Transicion. It was an early setback for Ponce but did not dissuade Roma from beating Tottenham to his signature in January for a reported €5million for 60% of his rights. Loaned back to Newell’s for the remainder of 2015, Ponce has been getting some much needed game time under his belt and his well taken goal against San Lorenzo, the first since his return from injury, suggests that a return to his best may be sooner rather than later.
His nickname, ‘The Tank’, gives you an idea of Ponce’s impressive physique and power, especially given that he’s still in his teens. An all-round number 9, Ponce boasts great movement, good finishing and impressive heading ability which make him a constant threat inside the box.
As well as being able to hold up the ball well, Newell’s possession-based style of play means that Ponce is also required to drop deep and link play, as well as showing determination to press from the front without the ball.
One criticism of Ponce could be that he has yet to properly show the prolific, clinical streak that he did at youth level but that can probably be put down to his inexperience and the fact that he is still finding his feet in the Primera.
It’s yet to be seen how his serious injury will affect him and how he can bounce back but a year of first team of football before his move to Roma should shake off any signs of rustiness and get back amongst the goals.
Ponce is certainly still raw but once the rough edges are refined, he has all the attributes to become a complete striker in any of Europe’s top divisions.
For the time being, the priority will be all about getting back up to speed with regular first team football at Newell’s. In the bloated 30 team league, there will be some minnows that could provide some good target practice and even though Newell’s aren’t the same force they were under Martino, Ponce has a good squad around him who endeavour to play in a way that should help his transition to Italy.
Also, Ponce has been included in Humbertito Grondona’s pre-tournament Argentina U-20 squad ahead of the World Cup in New Zealand this summer. Although he wasn’t part of the squad that won the Sudamericano, he would be expected to be incorporated into the side to bolster the forward line and provide competition for Gio Simeone who, despite being top scorer, is yet to truly convince and hasn’t been getting much of a look-in at River.
With the wealth of creative attacking midfielders, Ponce’s penalty box prowess could come in very handy for the Albiceleste. At the end of the year he will finally link up with Roma and join compatriots Juan Manuel Iturbe and Leandro Paredes which will hopefully help him settle in the Italian capital.
Given that he’ll still be just 18, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him loaned out to another Italian side in order to gain more experience for a season or two. Hopefully he will be afforded a certain amount of patience and given time to adapt – like Paulo Dybala at Palermo – because the Giallorossi have a very promising talent on their hands.
Written by Tom Robinson