Lavezzi: Maradona's reluctant heir

Naples is well and truly under his spell, while the San Paolo stadium has a buzz about it not felt for many a year.

The man causing this commotion is 23-year-old Ezequiel Ivan Lavezzi, a short, stocky Argentinian attacker drawing inevitable comparisons with Diego Armando Maradona. And though nobody could hope to replace Diego in Neapolitan hearts, the fiery front-runner with a lethal right foot is proving himself a worthy successor.

Lavezzi himself gives such comparisons short shrift: "I wish people would stop likening me to a legend. There's only one Diego Maradona and there always will be. I'm just doing my bit to try to make my team-mates and the Napoli fans happy."

But at the risk of incurring the wrath of Napoli's No7 - the No10 shirt was withdrawn in tribute to the great man - the similarities are striking. Furthermore, whether omen or mere coincidence, he was officially presented to the Neapolitan tifosi on 5 July 2007, 23 years to the day after Maradona's unveiling.

From screwdrivers to piledrivers
Although some nine centimetres taller than the Pibe de Oro, he shares his compact, heavyset build and low centre of gravity. Combined with exceptional bursts of acceleration and real pace over longer distances, these qualities have seen him unhinge even Italian football's most notoriously watertight defences.

Often unpredictable, Lavezzi is always looking to play one-twos and is adept at making runs out wide, opening up gaps in the centre for his team-mates to slip into before finding them with crosses of uncanny accuracy.

A native of Villa Gobernador Galvez in the Santa Fe province, he cut his footballing teeth with minnows Coronel Aguirre de Rosario before joining the youth ranks at Boca Juniors, yet another of Maradona's former clubs.

However, after failing to see eye to eye with the club's administrators, he turned his back on football at 16 to learn the electrician's trade alongside his brother. But his nascent talent had not gone unnoticed and the following season he signed on the dotted line for another Buenos Aires side, Estudiantes, for whom he netted 17 times in 2004 with the club in the third division.

'Ready to shine'
The spell at Estudiantes would trigger a rollercoaster period in Lavezzi's career, a winding road which would eventually lead to Naples. First of all, Italian Serie B side Genoa secured his services, but he left them for a season back on loan in Argentina at San Lorenzo.

In 2005, he returned to Italy and made his official debut for the Rossoblu on 23 July, only to return to his homeland one month later when his transfer to San Lorenzo was made permanent. Genoa, meanwhile, slipped down into Serie C.

During two and a half seasons back in Buenos Aires, he bagged 25 goals in 84 games, playing a key role as San Lorenzo became 2007 Clausura champions. "Lavezzi is now ready to shine in Europe," said then coach Ramon Diaz, whose own playing career included spells at Inter Milan, Fiorentina and Napoli.

In a case of third time lucky, Lavezzi settled in quickly at Napoli and made a remarkable start to the season. But Serie A's less scrupulous defenders quickly earmarked him as one bright spark that must be dimmed, at any cost. Unable to find an immediate solution to their overzealous attentions, Lavezzi was hit by a brief crisis of confidence, taking to heart criticism received from the Italian media and cutting a petulant figure.

Yet he has since belied his lack of top-level experience to become one of the division's most consistent performers, chalking up seven goals so far in 24 league games and three more in cup ties. Having made his international debut on 18 April 2007, he has also been named in the Argentinian preliminary squad for the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, along with the likes of Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme.

Looking every inch a star of tomorrow, the man whose body is adorned with eleven different tattoos now needs to make the final step up. And if he does make the grade, Napoli's dreams of bringing back the glory days of two decades ago could be well and truly revived.