Acosta, Argentina's guardian angel
© Foto-net

Some players are just destined to shine when it matters most, hauling themselves from the anonymity of the bench to save their teams when the chips are down. Lautaro Acosta is one such player and is fast acquiring a reputation as the saviour of Hugo Tocalli's young side.

His first providential act came at the recent South American qualifying competition, when his late, late header against Uruguay ensured the reigning U-20 and Olympic champions would go forward to defend their crowns at Canada 2007 and Beijing 2008.

The second came in the dying stages of Sunday's goalless draw with the Czech Republic. After coming on once more for the final ten minutes, Acosta saved Argentina from defeat when he sprinted seventy metres to clear Tomas Micola's goal-bound shot off the line. Just hours from the crucial showdown with Panama, tracked down El Laucha for an exclusive tête-a-tête and found out what makes the supersub tick.

I want to play as much as I can
A quicksilver presence on the pitch, the boy from Lanus is equally rapid when it comes to fielding questions about his adventures with Argentina - particularly when the subject turns to his most notable feats, about which he is very reluctant to gloat. "For me the team's objectives are far more important than any personal goals I might have," he begins. "I came here to help the team and win the title. Of course, I want to play as much as I can and build my confidence. I got ten minutes the other day and I hope to get more in the next few games."

Not without a little prompting, the unassuming Acosta, an ardent admirer of Lionel Messi, finally acknowledges the crucial role he played in getting his side to North America in the first place. "That goal against Uruguay was important on a personal level," he says. "I started getting a little more recognition after that, and that made me feel better, more confident. But that's understandable. I'm well aware that Lanus players don't have as big a profile as the guys who play for River Plate or Boca Juniors. It doesn't bother me at all though."

The man in the mask
Acosta was introduced to the game by his father as a four-year-old, joining Lanus some five years later, the club where two of his brothers also play. And fittingly, having helped him take his first footsteps on the road to success, his father has travelled to Canada to watch him in action.

Apart from his match-saving dash to the line against the Czechs, Acosta has also been turning heads for another reason. After breaking his cheekbone in a league game two months ago, he has been forced to wear a specially fitted mask on the pitch, an accessory that has inevitably made him the butt of a joke or two in the Albiceleste camp.

"They've been driving me nuts, but it's okay," he laughs. "I get to take it off sometimes and my team-mates say I should put it back on and things like that. It's funny though. The good thing is it's given me the confidence to play because it was a nasty injury. They had to operate and I had two pins in my face for a month. Some of my teeth are still a bit numb even now."

Joking apart, Acosta is itching to slip the mask back on against the Panamanians for a match Argentina need to win to keep their campaign on course. "They play good football and like to move the ball around. They do look a bit disorganised though, and that's where we can capitalise," he comments. "The important thing is to stay calm and remember that the goal can come just as easily at the end as at the start."

Rest assured, if the defending champions do need another late goal, they know exactly where to find it.