By Alan Feehely, in Seville l @azulfeehely
Jesús Navas stepped inside from the right and played a clipped pass to the back post. Lucas Ocampos, breaking from the left, arrived just in time to meet the cross and direct his effort into the back of the net to give Sevilla the lead.
Eibar, battling relegation, responded with character. They pressed hard for an equaliser and were given an opportunity to strike level in the final moments. Sevilla goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík was forced off due to injury, and as coach Julen Lopetegui had already used all five of his allotted substitutions he was forced to call on an outfielder to take his place. Ocampos volunteered – the man who had created Sevilla’s lead was now charged with protecting it.
The final play of the game saw Eibar with the ball loose in the Sevilla box. Marko Dmitrović – the visitor’s goalkeeper – had gone forward for the last throw of the dice, and he managed to get a shot off amidst the chaos to draw a stunning save from his makeshift opposite number, Ocampos, with Navas clearing the follow-up off the line. Ocampos wheeled away in celebration at the final whistle with fire in his eyes – after many years of struggling to fulfill his once-vaunted potential, he had become the main man.
That was at the beginning of July. By the end of August Ocampos had become a European champion, helping Sevilla beat Inter in Cologne to secure a record sixth Europa League title as well as finishing fourth in La Liga, ten points clear of fifth-placed Villarreal and level on points with Atlético Madrid. The financial reality of a post-Coronavirus world makes a big money move for Ocampos, as well as fellow high-performing colleagues Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos, unlikely, meaning that Lopetegui could have a near-full complement of players available to try and repeat a top-four finish and compete in the Champions League.
It was fitting that on that July evening at the Sánchez-Pizjuán it was Navas and Ocampos working in tandem to both create and preserve Sevilla’s lead over Eibar. The pair have been consistently excellent for the club all season, forging a connection on the right wing that is amongst one of the strongest in European football. When Navas wants to overlap, Ocampos can tuck inside to create space, and by sometimes breaking inside, Navas creates an opening for Ocampos to hit the flanks.
Ocampos scored 14 league goals in 2019/20 and recorded three assists, while Navas led the assist chart – alongside Éver Banega – with seven. Intertwined on the pitch, they are different characters off it – Ocampos is strong and lean, a competitive animal that is the embodiment of Argentine football. Navas is svelte, 24kg lighter than Ocampos, and a much quieter character – although not one without a certain steel. At 34, Navas is nearing the end of a successful career – Ocampos, at 26, is approaching his peak, and beginning to feature more regularly for the Argentine national team after making his debut in 2019.
Not that it has been a smooth ascent. Ocampos began his career with Quilmes, one of Argentina’s oldest clubs. He immediately showed promise and was recruited by Buenos Aires rivals River Plate – the club he supported as a boy – after scoring twice against them in a youth team match. Quickly, he built a reputation as one of Argentine football’s brightest talents, a status solidified after an impressive performance at the U17 World Cup with the national side. His return to River coincided with the club’s relegation in 2011, so coach Matías Almeyda, in need of fresh blood, fast tracked Ocampos into the first team.
Competing in the second division proved a double-edged sword. It offered an opportunity to youngsters like Ocampos to cut their teeth that they wouldn’t have in the Primera, but it also created a situation where every club that took on the Argentine giants treated it like a cup final, hungry for a scalp. If there was pressure, it did not appear to get to Ocampos. Even from a young age he carried himself with a distinct air – a chest out, prideful aggression that led to comparisons with a young Cristiano Ronaldo. He proved instrumental in helping the club return to the top flight at the first time of asking, scoring seven goals, but didn’t get the chance to test himself in his country’s top tier – after just one appearance Europe came calling and the winger was off to Monaco for €11m.
Monaco were in Ligue 2 when he joined them, but, backed by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev and managed by Claudio Ranieri, had their eye on bigger things. Ocampos scored four goals in his first season in France to help Monaco earn the promotion they so desired, but the following close-season saw a raft of expensive recruits diminish the influence he held over the team. James Rodríguez, Radamel Falcao and João Moutinho all joined that summer, and despite being pushed down the pecking order Ocampos responded with tenacity, delivering five goals as the team were pipped to the Ligue 1 title by Paris Saint-Germain. The next season his game-time was even further restricted, however, and by the winter window he had requested a transfer.
He got it, a loan move to southern rivals Marseille until the end of the season. Working under his compatriot Marcelo Bielsa he scored twice in fourteen appearances and performed adequately enough to earn a permanent deal worth €7 million the following summer. A front three of himself, Florian Thauvin and Michy Batshuayi heralded great hopes from the Marseille supporters, but Bielsa resigned after the first game of the new season and Ocampos wasn’t as valued by his successor, Míchel. Off on loan he went once again, spending a broken season in Italy with Genoa and then Milan.
Ocampos returned to Marseille ahead of 2017/18 a changed man, playing with a spirit and fight that tapped directly into the values held dearest by their supporters. Marseille’s fans want their players to compete for every ball, to play with aggression and intent. Ocampos’ willingness to do that, coupled with the ability to produce the odd wondergoal, made him popular on the terraces. Some of his highlights at Marseille included a hat-trick in a record 9-0 evisceration of Bourg-en Bresse in the Coupe de France and the role he played in the club’s run to the Europa League final in 2018, when they were felled by Atléti.
His final season in France was marked by institutional instability. Rudi Garcia and the new board enjoyed a wave of positivity after initial success, but the impetus faltered before long and 2018/19 was far from a vintage campaign for Marseille. The club finished fifth, thus missing out on any form of European qualification, although Ocampos was one of their best performers alongside Japanese full-back Hiroki Sakai. Despite this, there wasn’t a great deal of controversy when he left for Spain and Sevilla in a €15m deal. Marseille’s supporters viewed him as a committed professional who didn’t quite reach his initial potential, with few believing he could level up and reach the true elite.
Going into 2020/21, however, the Argentine is on the verge of doing that. “Everyone is pulling in the same direction and always supporting the team,” Ocampos said in the build-up to the Europa League quarter-final against Wolves. “Both the players who are playing and the players who aren’t. This is one of the most important and difficult things to find in a team.” Ocampos and Sevilla are a well-suited partnership – both are underdogs, taken by many to perpetually be just below the true elite. This coming season is a chance for both to take their games to the next level and prove their doubters wrong.