To the enduring rivalry of Arsenal and Spurs, a new episode: which adopted North Londoner will come out on top in the battle for Argentina’s goalkeeping jersey? In competition, two glovemen with much in common, both emerging from the shadows and suddenly within touching distance of addressing Lionel Messi as 'captain'.
In the one corner, Emiliano Martinez who on Wednesday – against Guimaraes – should play his 20th match for Arsenal, the club he has belonged to for the best part of a decade. He is back-up to Bernd Leno in the league, but has the gloves for the Europa League, from which Arsenal can confirm their qualification for the next phase with a win.
A couple of hours later, in Belgrade, Paulo Gazzaniga will line up for his 20th match for Tottenham Hotspur, the club he has been contracted to for just over two years. He has the gloves for Spurs in the Champions League and the Premier League because of the shoulder injury sustained by Spurs captain, Hugo Lloris, a month ago.
Martinez and Gazzaniga are both 27, both tall, imposing men with big voices in the penalty area. Both left Argentina in their teens and in search of advancement, have endured longer stretches of their careers as back-up club keepers than they would have chosen. Both learned that patience and adaptability are skills as important as sharp reflexes or precise distribution.
Both have played in environments quite unlike the European stages they are on today. Gazzaniga’s first adventure in senior football? A £500 (Dh2,300)-a-week gig, billeted in a spare room at the club cleaner’s home, with Gillingham in League Two – the fourth tier of the English game. Martinez’s catalogue of loan spells from Arsenal – “some good, some bad,” says the player – includes Oxford United, also of League Two.
From there to a national team captained by Messi is a long journey. It is one Martinez will make next week, for his third call-up for Argentina during the short tour of the Middle East. It’s a trip Gazzaniga is entitled to feel his form earned him a place on.
The Spurs man has been an understudy to Lloris – whose rehabilitation will last into the new year – with distinction, notably with a series of fine saves against Liverpool in the 2-1 defeat at Anfield. Martinez went to the same stadium three nights later and conceded five goals, and then five penalties in the shoot-out, for Arsenal’s League Cup side.
The comparison may be extreme, but to some Argentinians for whom the debate over who should be the national side’s goalkeeper is a live one, the preference of head coach Lionel Scaloni for the unheralded Arsenal back-up over the soaring Spur is puzzling.
Gazzaniga won his sole international cap 12 months ago, when he was still in a contest with Michel Vorm to be first deputy to Lloris at Spurs.
Arsenal’s Martinez has yet to come off the bench for his country, though he hopes the games against Brazil and Uruguay might give him his first minutes. “It’s a dream,” Martinez said. “I always told my dad I won’t stop until I’m number one for Argentina.”
Gazzaniga’s father, meanwhile, always encouraged his sons, Paulo and Gianfranco, to aspire high, but warned that elite goalkeepers sometimes need to bide their time. Dani Gazzaniga knows; he was a keeper at River Plate in his prime, in the 1980s.
“I was at River at the same time as two goalkeepers who played in World Cup finals for Argentina,” Dani recalls. “And now Paulo is behind Lloris, a World Cup captain. I always told both my sons ‘You must seize the moment’.”
Dani's second son Gianfranco, 25, is currently with Ponferradina in Spain’s second tier, while Paulo has climbed from a boyhood at Valencia’s academy, via Gillingham, a loan at Rayo Vallecano, a stand-in role at Southampton, to a place of trust for Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager. Pochettino, a former Argentina defender, has endorsed the player's international pedigree.
The goalkeeping berths for Argentina look open. Ahead of Martinez and Gazzaniga right now would be Franco Armani, 33, of River Plate and probably Agustin Marchesin, 31, of Porto.
But the North London pair can take confidence that for this national team, being a number two at your club is no barrier.
Sergio Romero, back-up at Monaco, was first pick for Argentina all the way to the World Cup final in 2014. Willy Caballero, deputy keeper at Chelsea, played the first two games at the unhappy World Cup four years later.
For Gazzaniga and Martinez the aim is to go better – that by the 2022 World Cup they are undisputed number one for club and country. And that, in the meantime, success for Spurs and Arsenal on the European club stage makes a resonant impression back home.