Why Barça are turning up the heat to Maxi

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The Independent Online

Back home in Argentina, Maxi Lopez was nicknamed "The German" because of his blond hair. In Barcelona, the manner in which this tall, powerful 20-year-old barged Chelsea to defeat prompted a swift relabelling as "The Tank". In Britain, of course, he would be the latest in that distinguished line of special heroes known as "Supersub", gifted footballers whose intervention turns a game on its head.

Back home in Argentina, Maxi Lopez was nicknamed "The German" because of his blond hair. In Barcelona, the manner in which this tall, powerful 20-year-old barged Chelsea to defeat prompted a swift relabelling as "The Tank". In Britain, of course, he would be the latest in that distinguished line of special heroes known as "Supersub", gifted footballers whose intervention turns a game on its head.

Just what Maximiliano Gaston Lopez will serve up for Barça in the second leg of the Champions' League at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday can be guaranteed to induce apprehension after that unforgettable 26 minutes at the Nou Camp which transformed Chelsea from leaders to losers.

Those 26 minutes introduced a vibrant new talent to a team already brimming with the stuff, and Catalonia is in celebratory overdrive. The image appearing on the adverts offering pay-per-view access to this week's game is not Ronaldinho's toothy grin but Maxi's black hairband and flowing locks.

That hair, more than the chicken impersonation with which he celebrated scoring just three minutes after coming on against Chelsea, is what has registered with Barça's faithful thousands. Now the sporting cartoonists can give Ronaldinho's dentures a rest and let their pens flow free on the golden tresses.

Already one has shown Maxi using the hair to lasso an entire opposing team, though two subsequent league games have not seen the boy from Buenos Aires indulging in any excessive roping skills. He was again a late sub (for Ronaldinho) on a frozen pitch at Numancia last week, and though he started Tuesday's derby game against Espanyol he was replaced at half-time by Iniesta.

However, the back injury suffered by Ludovic Giuly when he fell on the Numancia ice has ruled the Frenchman out of Stamford Bridge, so The Tank is certain to figure on Tuesday. Quite right, too, is the reaction of an athlete who doesn't do modesty. The 6ft 2in forward, signed from River Plate in January for £5m, lards comments about the new life with words like "privilege" and "learning", but he announces with a smile that his old club, River Plate, are "a good producer", while Barça rate as "a good buyer".

Asked to define himself as a player, Maxi is quick to oblige: "A lot of power, a good touch and a lot of mobility to generate chances. But I know I still have lots to learn, so I will take it nice and easy, with my eyes wide open, because a lot of great Argentinians, like Maradona, Riquelme and Saviola, needed a long time to settle at Barça. Obviously it is a big change, and I am keen to adapt quickly so not to disappoint."

That need was made plain as soon as Maxi landed in Spain. Having been rejected after a trial by Ajax, pursued briefly last season by Espanyol and then snatched from under Benfica's noses by Barça's manager, Frank Rijkaard, on the recommendation of his brother, Herman, Maxi's first sight of his new club was via television. "Barça were playing Seville, they scored three goals in 10 minutes. I was impressed, not only by the quality but also the efficiency of the machine."

Joining currently the best team in Spain and "the best club in Europe", Maxi was prepared to wait for his chance. His debut was a limited one, 12 minutes as substitute in the 2-0 home defeat by Atletico Madrid, but against Chelsea Rijkaard decided The Tank's time had come.

"He told me to drag Chelsea's defenders around and make space for my team- mates," Maxi recalled. "He really pumped up my confidence." That confidence was repaid in spectacular fashion as Maxi wiped out Chelsea's lead, celebrating with his rooster impersonation. "It is something I always do when I score," said Maxi. River Plate, where he totalled 13 goals in four years after a debut at 17, have a chicken mascot.

As if that wasn't enough, what could have been described as a Maxi miscue was rattled home by Samuel Eto'o for the winner. It was time to ignite the blue touch- paper. "Maxi lights up Barça," said one Catalan sports paper. "He enters Europe through a grand gate." As Maxi himself acknowledged: "Barça are one of the few teams where you can become a hero with one goal. I got goose bumps when I heard everybody shouting my name after I scored." Now shirts bearing his name and number, 11, are selling as briskly as Ronaldinho's.

Maxi doesn't mind being called The Tank "because that's the way I play, hard and aggressive". Hardness is something he learned early. The death of his father when he was 17 meant Maxi needed to be a family provider from the moment he left his first Buenos Aires club, Estrella de Maldonado, to join River Plate. Until that Nou Camp occasion against Chelsea, Maxi's biggest moment had come last season with the winner for River Plate in the derby game with Boca Juniors. "I played on the wing and became a star," he said, adding that his sister, a Boca supporter, was not best pleased with him.

The ritual rubbishing of Chelsea in Catalonia's media is well under way, with the traditional enemy, Real Madrid, relegated for the moment to second spot in the vilification stakes. Even the mild-mannered Rijkaard has been quoted as saying that neighbours Espanyol "are a better footballing side than Chelsea, with a stronger winning mentality".

Maxi's attitude is that Barça's 2-1 lead "has given us a bit of space" for a demanding second leg. It is an evening he regards himself as fortunate to be involved in. "This is a privilege which very few attain. I am 20 years old and playing for Barcelona. I can't complain." Nor will the Nou Camp faithful if The Tank demolishes Chelsea again.

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