“It’s like having Messi in your team” is not a comparison you expect to hear in the Primera RFEF (third tier) on a Saturday afternoon at Alcorcon, but it was a motif that our adjacent commentator insisted on several times. Putting aside the obvious incredulity that statement might inspire, there was a loose basis for comparing the great Argentine to Lucas Perez.
Since the glory years faded, Perez might be the favourite son of Deportivo La Coruna. The now 34-year-old is into his fourth spell with the club over the last decade. Growing up in A Coruna, Perez is a bona fide fan playing for his hometown club. During the first two spells, he helped them to hang onto their La Liga status, before finally succumbing to the drop in 2018 while on loan from Arsenal. In the meantime, he had brought Depor €20m when he left for London, which was crucial for the dire finances at Riazor.
This January he returned from Cadiz, paying half of the €1m it cost Depor to bring him back out of his own pocket. Albeit on a smaller scale, the atmosphere when he returned was worthy of Lionel Messi. Over 23,000 fans turned out to see him net a brace in his fourth debut, as Deportivo dispatched Unionistas 3-0 in a perfect evening last weekend. Perez is back to help get Depor back to Segunda at least, where the accountants will look a little less scary for this fallen giant, and that victory moved them fourth, within four points of top spot.
Back at the Estadio Santo Domingo in Alcorcon, the travelling Depor fans tucked in the corner competed with those of the home side. The teams weren’t so even. Perez mooched around for much of the first half, his most intense action being two lengthy discussions with the referee, one of which he was booked for.
Despite his inactivity, there was the sense that within him lay both the gate to special things though, and the key to Deportivo’s success in the match. In that, our friend with the microphone had a point too.
Alcorcon meanwhile were having their way with Depor. Pablo Garcia received the ball in the inside left position, firing one of the three clear chances they had into the bottom corner just under 10 minutes before the break. It was former Depor midfielder Pedro Mosquera and ex-Eibar winger Javi Lara who looked as if they had just dropped out of La Liga.
In the second half, Depor began playing like the favourites, finally enjoying comfortable possession in the Alcorcon half. Just as Deportivo manager Oscar Cano gave Perez a partner up front though, goalkeeper Ian Mackay saved an Alcorcon chip outside the box, and was duly sent off. The trip back to Galicia looked remarkably long at that point.
Then it happened. Perez gave Jean-Sylvain Babin the slip as he looked to latch onto a long ball and was brought down just outside the box. When the prodigal son poised himself over the ball, left-footed, he did the comparison some justice again by arrowing his shot into the top corner. A moment of pure brilliance that Deportivo had no right to. As Perez raised his arms to the sky on the way back to the halfway line, there too, was reason enough for a wry smile.
Just moments later, now into the 75th minute with ‘Lucas’ the loudest noise in the stadium, he would slip through two challenges in the box as if by wizardry, before bringing a quality save from Jesus Ruiz. It was happening.
But the scriptwriters could no longer deny the football match playing out between the two teams. Alcorcon renewed their attacking efforts having dropped off, streaming forward against the increasingly exhausted ten-man Depor.
Born in A Coruna too, Mosquera spent four years at Riazor, coinciding with Perez for three of those years. It was his curling ball over the top, soft as the summer breeze, that set the decisive attack in motion. Berto Gonzalez ended it with a bobbling, curling striker from the edge of the box to rectify the scoreline in the 85th minute, returning it to the only just result. Adrian Dalmau would gloss it a little with a 96th minute penalty, as a spent Depor defence waved the white flag.
At the final whistle, Perez waved his teammates over to the sunken Galician section, silenced for good by the final ten minutes. There is no doubt he is now the face and faith of Depor. What Cano and Depor might have learned from this humbling in Alcorcon though, is that perhaps Perez is more akin to the final years of Luis Suarez. Capable of moments of magic, holder of the talent to decide games, Deportivo will need a little more than just that to end their years of hurt. For Perez and Depor to enter the cinematic at the end of the season, Deportivo will need to ensure he is not asked to be Messi.