Downing Barça, outscoring Cristiano: Arsenal-linked Lucas resurrecting Deportivo

The former Champions League semi-finalists-turned-Segunda fodder have had tough times of late – but so too has their thriving forward who's attracting English interest, writes Lee Roden...

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Even when 2-0 down at Camp Nou on December 12, Deportivo La Coruña coach Víctor Sánchez stuck to the plan. Instead of dropping them back to provide extra numbers in defence, his forwards were instructed to stay high up the pitch, going man-to-man with Barcelona’s two central defenders and deepest midfielder. It meant fewer bodies to defend with, but it also meant that each of Deportivo’s three attackers would only need to beat one opponent to create a goalscoring chance. With Lucas Pérez around, it was a risk worth taking.  

It paid off. The striker’s warning shot was fired in the 74th minute, when he headed in only to see the linesman deny him with an offside call. Two minutes later, though, there was no flag to foil his efforts. Fed by Miguel Cardoso, Lucas dropped his shoulder and, with a swift change of pace, burst between Javier Mascherano and behind Jeremy Mathieu, arriving in the box with enough space to take a neat first touch before guiding a left-footed finish underneath Claudio Bravo. As soon as his effort had crossed the line, the scorer ran towards Gerard Piqué, grabbing the ball. He wasn’t done yet.

When Sergio Busquets lost possession with six minutes left on the clock, it was Lucas who was most alert, sprinting onto the loose pass and touching it over the head of the onrushing Piqué. Subtly dropping the ball to the ground, he calmly supplied Álex Bergantiños for the equaliser; one goal, one assist and Depor leaving the Camp Nou with a huge point after a comeback led by their game-changing forward. Not for the first time, either.

Lucas had already inspired Depor to another dramatic 2-2 draw in the Catalan capital last May, scoring the goal (below) that halved the deficit in a fate-deciding encounter that would ultimately seal his side’s survival in the top flight. Back then, he was only beginning to demonstrate what he was capable of in Spain after an injury-hit first half of the season.

The long way

Lucas has scored against Valencia, against Athletic, against Atlético, Sevilla and Barça. More importantly, he also netted in the Galician derby against Celta

It’s a completely different story this term. With 11 goals in the first 15 rounds of La Liga, Lucas has outscored Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann. He is the first Depor player to hit those numbers at this stage of the campaign since 2002 and Roy Makaay.

Lucas has scored against Valencia, against Athletic, against Atlético, Sevilla and Barça. More importantly for Deportivo fans, he also netted in the Galician derby against Celta. With a record like that, it’s tempting to conclude that big games are his speciality, yet he’s done it against the smaller sides too: twice against Espanyol, once against Levante, Las Palmas and Rayo.

Lucas Perez, Deportivo

Celebrating his opener in the Camp Nou comeback

An A Coruña native, Lucas may be a hero at the Riazor these days but the 27-year-old's road here has been a long one. He never played for Depor as a kid, coming close when the club selected him for Spain’s Brunete junior tournament, but left heartbroken when he was dropped at the final cut. It wasn’t unusual for local talent to slip through the net in the days when Depor still didn’t have a dedicated Alevín (U12) side.

What was atypical, however, was the path the striker took once he turned professional. He moved to Rayo Vallecano after spells in multiple youth academies, making his Liga Adelante debut under Pepe Mel in February 2010. The next step was an extremely brave one: in January 2011, Karpaty Lviv came calling, offering a chance to play top-flight football but also asking a 22-year-old boy to make the huge leap from Spain to Ukraine. It was an opportunity he accepted.

Lucas Perez, Deportivo

Lucas pokes one in against Sociedad

From Lviv, Lucas eventually earned what should have been a dream loan move to Dynamo Kyiv. Instead, it was a disaster.

Prodigal Son

When I kissed that badge I was kissing my city, the nostalgia for it, the fact of having lived for years away

- Lucas

He never saw eye to eye with coach Oleg Blokhin, was sent to the youth team to train and went three months without playing any senior football. That experience left a mark on the player, not only because of the lack of playing time – or even because he is still owed money from his old club – but because of far more important matters: “In Ukraine, 80% of people are poor, the rest multimillionaires. Footballers don’t live in a bubble, you see the day to day on the buses, in the healthcare, in lots of things.”

Greek side PAOK put Pérez out of his misery in 2013, a switch that was ultimately only a stepping stone towards the real goal. That arrived in 2014, when he finally became a Deportivo player on an initial loan deal that later became permanent.

When he scored his first goal in the blue and white shirt against Valencia, the Galician ran, kissed his badge, then kicked one of the Riazor’s advertising boards in an outpouring of emotion. “When I kissed that badge I was kissing my city, the nostalgia for it, the fact of having lived for years away, abroad, and leaving my family and friends when I was 16,” he later explained.

Lucas had come home the finished article, showing a hunger to win every loose ball that is hard to separate from his struggles to forge a career as a professional. Combine that desire with a rapid turn of pace once he regains possession, as well as sublime technique in tight spaces learned from his beginnings in futsal, and the end product is a formidable striker who's capable of bruising any defence.    

Goner for Gunners?

Pérez’s agent has been open about interest in his client from Bundesliga and Premier League sides, one of whom is believed to be Arsenal

A member of Depor’s only title-winning team, Fran González knows a thing or two about quality. He’s convinced that Lucas is special. Writing in La Voz de Galicia, he described his compatriot as “the kind of player not found in abundance... versatile enough to adapt to a defensive, counter-attacking system, or equally, one where possession is prime. He has attributes few Spanish strikers right now have.” The former midfielder then predicted that English clubs will consider his €20m buyout clause more than reasonable.

González may not be too wide of the mark: Pérez’s agent Rodrigo Fernández has been open about interest in his client from Bundesliga and Premier League sides, one of whom is believed to be Arsenal. The bad news for the Gunners is that Fernández also confirmed Lucas has no desire to leave home at this moment in time, having worked so hard to get there in the first place.

That’s not just good for Depor but also La Liga, which is all the better for his presence, however long it may last.

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