Alexis Mac Allister will not be playing for Argentina when they take on Chile in their second game of the South American Under-23 Championships on Friday night. He is serving a suspension after being sent off for receiving two yellow cards in the opening match. Despite the dismissal, he has probably been the best thing on show so far in the tournament.
In the toughest game so far, Argentina's 2-1 win over hosts Colombia, he was the difference between the two sides. The match showcased the talent of the 21-year-old attacking midfielder, who was snapped up by Brighton a year ago, but who has been unable to move to the Premier League due to work permit issues.
The current competition, qualifying two teams for the Olympics, is being played in the same coffee-growing region of Colombia in which Lionel Messi emerged on the scene 15 years ago in the continental Under-20 Championships. Mac Allister is not, and will never be, that good. But he showed himself well worthy of the Argentina No. 10 shirt against Colombia last Saturday, and came up big on a night that could have turned out badly for his side.
Argentina were quickly a goal down, and Colombia were roared on by a packed home crowd in Pereira. Mac Allister silenced that crowd with a goal and an assist that showcased the range of his talent. He is a fine striker of the ball from set pieces, and soon equalised with a wonderful free kick. From open play he can be audacious and impish, happy to burst into the penalty area and quick to see options around him. He laid on the winner for big centre-forward Adolfo Gaich with a magnificent back-heeled pass that took out the entire Colombian defence.
He will surely be missed on Friday against a Chile side that have won both of their first two games, and will be welcomed back for Monday's meeting with Ecuador. The short-term question is whether he can help Argentina make it to the Tokyo Olympics -- there are just two slots available for the 10 South American nations.
There is a mid-term question, too. Brighton have finally managed to obtain the work permit. Do they take him across the Atlantic now, or will they wait until the summer? The latter seems more probable.
Brighton bought him from Argentinos Juniors but when they found out they would not be able to use him, he was sent on loan to Boca Juniors for a loan deal that expires in the middle of the year. It seems that they would have to pay to bring him over now -- and he is probably happy to stay with Boca for a while. His father, a former international left-back, was a Boca player, who stated that Alexis was living a dream by pulling on the famous blue and yellow shirt. The loan to Boca has been good for his profile, as he spent last year playing big games in the Copa Libertadores, and earned a senior for Argentina debut last September. At the moment, his career appears to be acquiring an attractive momentum.
But there are also long-term questions about how far he can go? Or what position will he play?
He is an attacking midfielder through the middle of the pitch by nature. When operating centrally he has a full panorama of passing options in front of him, and is close enough to goal to shoot and break into the box. He ran the show from this position against Colombia.
But at the highest level of the game, this is the zone of the pitch where the marking is most intense, where space is pressed most fiercely. Slight of build, it is easy to imagine Mac Allister struggling to make an impact, and so he is often forced wide. He has played most of his football for Boca out on the left and last September, Argentina used him wide on the right. Space might be easier to find, but he is limited out on the flanks, where he is further from where he wants to be, and not blessed with a genuine winger's burst of pace.
The rest of the U23 tournament, then, is not only about Argentina sealing a place in the Tokyo Olympics. It is also a soapbox from which Alexis Mac Allister can shout out -- to Argentina, to Boca, to Brighton -- that he has what it takes to boss the game from the middle of the pitch.