Nicolas Otamendi can pull off the look of a menacing centre-half without too much effort.
The Manchester City defender has the haircut of an American GI, a beard which could earn him a walk-on part in Pirates of the Caribbean and more tattoos than Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, so it is little surprise that he greets the mention of referees with a grin and a shrug.
“I always treat referees as well as I can and with respect,” Otamendi says as we sit down to chat after City training. “But I think it [appearance] can be a factor with officials, depending on your personality and how you play. But yes, the beard and the tattoos help the aggressive image. I suppose it brings a bit more to it.”
Otamendi, City’s £31.7m summer signing from Valencia in La Liga, travels to Goodison Park for Wednesday night’s Capital One Cup semi-final, first leg against Everton having racked up five bookings in 22 appearances for Manuel Pellegrini’s team, but in the absence of City’s injured captain, Vincent Kompany, the Argentine’s grit and determination has helped the team negotiate a testing run of fixtures, domestically and in the Champions League.
The 27-year-old’s tussle with Everton striker Romelu Lukaku this evening is likely to be a key battle which will decide the eventual outcome of the tie, but Otamendi insists he has more to his game than mere physical intimidation.
“What excites me about this league and football in England is the physical aspect,” Otamendi says. “You are playing with and against top players, but they are also very physical. When I am defending, one of the things that is crucial for me is anticipating the play. You need to make sure you find the best option to stop these players.
“A player like Lukaku has great qualities and a lot of class, so you have to make sure you find a way of stopping his ability. But while the beard and tattoos may make me more fearsome, I also try to be a commanding, ball-winning centre-half and that is what I have always been looking to do.
“I started to let the beard grow at Valencia and I just liked it, so since then, it has become a big part of my personality, just like those tattoos. People always ask me about them. I had my first done when I was 14 and each one has some significance to it. My brother and my children are on there, and the face of my grandfather too. Most are personal, but if I see a design which catches my eye, I will go for it.
“At the moment there is one I am looking at which will be football related, but I need to find the correct place to have it on my body.”
Despite his well-honed tough-guy image, Otamendi projects a more light-hearted figure off the pitch, smiling and giggling his way through this interview, but happily switching from good cop to bad cop whenever the camera shutter clicks away.
He admits to spending time away from the game “finding shows for my kids (Morena, seven, Mia, six, and Valentin, one) to go to” and searching out restaurants for his family when they visit from Argentina.
But there is also the sanctuary of the punchbag at his home in Cheshire, which Otamendi confesses to pounding regularly having been bitten by the boxing bug as a youngster in Buenos Aires. “There was a time, maybe a two-year period when I was younger, when I would train with my cousin in a gym back home in Argentina and I really enjoyed it,” he says. “Not the competing, because I didn’t have any fights, but it is just a great way of keeping fit and I think any sportsman could learn from the way boxers train.
“I absolutely love it. On holiday, I do it a lot and I have a bag at home, so I am always working out, especially when my cousin, who is a kick-boxer and taekwondo teacher, comes over.
“We are always on the bag and I love to do it. I also like watching and I watch the fights on TV. I saw the Anthony Joshua fight recently and he is a fighter that impressed me. I know about [the Manchester City fanatic] Ricky Hatton too. I haven’t met him yet, but maybe soon.”
Otamendi versus Lukaku could quite easily translate into a heavyweight clash in the ring rather than on the football pitch, but like any good boxer, Otamendi accepts that a good defence is crucial and City have been unable to claim that distinction on a consistent basis this season.
Kompany’s prolonged absence due to injury has destabilised Manuel Pellegrini’s back four and Otamendi has shared criticism over the club’s defensive failings with Eliaquim Mangala and Martin Demichelis. But the former Valencia, Porto and Velez Sarsfield centre-half admits that criticism comes with the territory and nobody should be immune to it.
“No defender likes to concede goals or receive criticism,” Otamendi says. “We have all been subjected to some criticism at some point this season, but any team would miss Vinny. He is a top player, he is aggressive on the pitch and he has been a big loss for us.
“We hope to get him back as quickly as possible and that anyone the manager puts in to replace him can stay solid during that time. The games I played together with Vinny, I really enjoyed the partnership, both in the derby against Manchester United and in the Champions League against Sevilla.
“I felt we were developing something there. He is obviously a top player and he helps us a great deal when he is on the pitch, but recently, I have been playing with Mangala and he is a top player too. He is young, but he is developing as a professional and also as a personality – I can see that on the pitch. He was different when I played with him at Porto. He was a lot more aggressive on the pitch, but I think he has developed since then and is a good fit for the Premier League.
“But Mangala, me, Demichelis and Kompany, we all have to learn from the errors that we make. It is not specific to one individual. There is no such thing as a perfect centre-back, and sometimes, when you let a goal in, it is nobody’s fault, especially if the other team has scored a good one.”
Having been linked consistently with a summer move to neighbours United before signing for City in late August – “It was just rumours about United, there was no real contact,” he says – Otamendi has become the most consistent of Pellegrini’s defenders in Kompany’s absence.
But having been part of the club’s £150m transfer recruitment drive, Otamendi insists that the club should prepare for the second half of this season expecting to win a minimum of one trophy, starting with the Capital One Cup. “We have strengthened our team and we have some top-class players, so we should expect to win at least one of the trophies that we enter,” he says. “Everton will be a difficult tie, but we believe we can go through to the final
“We have lacked consistency recently and haven’t been able to go on a run, but I feel we are growing game by game and that is the objective. We just have to win as many of those as we can.”
Silverware and glory may even see Otamendi drop the tough-as-teak persona and smile on the pitch as much as he does off it.
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