Joaquin Correa showed just how much of a threat he could be to Manchester United in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 tie with Sevilla in February, and he will once more be a man to watch out for when the teams meet at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
In Spain, the 23-year-old drifted into central areas to help link things together in attack and also caused Antonio Valencia a number of problems when he picked up the ball on the left and drove inwards into the penalty area. Having done so, he produced three shots of varying quality from positions that on a good day could easily have yielded a goal.
And ahead of the return leg, it is worth noting that Correa has already made a decisive contribution away to an English team in this year’s Champions League. At Anfield in September, with Sevilla 2-1 down to Liverpool, he did well to drag a Luis Muriel pass into his path before finishing strongly past Loris Karius to earn his side a point.
That goal hinted at the talent of a player for whom this campaign was expected to be a breakout one. Last season, he steadily gained the confidence of then-coach Jorge Sampaoli. Fourteen of his 20 starts in all competitions came after the turn of the year, as did all five of his goals in La Liga and Champions League play. Those included the second goal in the first leg of Sevilla’s eventual Champions League last-16 defeat to Leicester City.
But he has not quite been able to take that momentum forward. Like many of his colleagues, he struggled to find his rhythm during the early months of this season as Eduardo Berizzo regularly rotated the starting XI. Though he produced a few standout moments, including a driving run past five opponents to set up Wissam Ben Yedder to open the scoring in victory at home to Maribor, he wasn’t able to put together a run of consistent performances.
When Vincenzo Montella replaced Berizzo at the end of December, he made clear that getting more from Correa, whom he had previously coached at Sampdoria, would be one of his priorities. Franco Vazquez and Pablo Sarabia are probably the attacking players who have benefited most from Montella’s more consistent selection policy, but Correa has also improved.
His league return of a single goal and zero assists from 1,049 minutes of game time (575 under Montella) doesn’t read well, but he performed impressively and scored vital goals in the triumphs against Atletico Madrid and Leganes in Sevilla’s run to the final of the Copa del Rey. His mere presence is also often enough to open up space for those around him.
That is because once Correa gets into stride, he is very difficult to stop. Tall, strong — the result of the intensive strengthening work demanded of him by Sinisa Mihajlovic during his first few months in Europe at Sampdoria — and quick, he carries the ball elegantly yet powerfully, able to subtlety adjust his trajectory at pace to open up space.
But he is still a player who needs to find a way of turning that potent ability to unbalance opposition defences into a concrete output of goals and assists. He is too often found dancing around on the fringes of play, over-elaborating or trying to make things happen at pace when an occasional moment of pause might yield a better opportunity.
When it all clicks, though, he is a thrillingly direct player and one who is more than capable of turning a match or tie in his side’s favour. He was carrying a knock into the first leg against United, and his influence dropped off appreciably during the final 25 minutes or so, but he will arrive fresher for the second leg after starting Saturday’s defeat to Valencia on the bench.
Correa has more than one reason to want to show well at Old Trafford. Despite making his debut and then scoring his first international goal in his ex-Sevilla coach Sampaoli’s first two matches as Argentina coach last June, he has since dropped down the pecking order. He was left out of the squad for this month’s friendlies against Italy and Spain and now has a fight on his hands to win back a place in the squad prior to this summer’s World Cup.
On Tuesday, Correa will therefore seek to both repay the faith that his coach, Montella, has shown in him and again catch the eye of the man who guided him through his promising first season in Spain. United remain the favourites to progress, but if Correa arrives fired up and focused, Sevilla might just have a chance of upsetting the odds.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.