A casual fan might have been dumbstruck seeing Argentina's lineup against Colombia. A back four, Lucas Biglia and Javier Mascherano shielding, Ever Banega handling playmaking duties (not entirely unexpected), Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi cutting in from wide and, up front ... Lucas Pratto.
Not Gonzalo Higuain, who set a Serie A goalscoring record last year. (He was on the bench.) Not Sergio "Kun" Aguero, who may well be the best striker in the Premier League and was the second-leading scorer last year. (He, too, was riding the pine.) Not Angel Correa, who may still be just 21 but at least plays for Atletico Madrid. (He was hanging with El Pipita and El Kun.) Not Mauro Icardi, who may be a bit of an odd fellow but was Serie A's top scorer two years ago and already has 11 goals this year in all competitions. (He was, presumably, in Wanda Nara Land.)
But Pratto. PRATTO! We talkin' 'bout Pratto. PRATTO!
The guy who is 28 years old and, until two months ago, had only ever watched La Albiceleste on the TV. The guy who at different times has been nicknamed "the bear" or "the camel" -- not animals you associate with this sport -- and has tattoos of Bart and Homer Simpson.
The guy who has scored four goals in 17 league matches for Atletico Mineiro (and in seven of those games he came off the bench). The guy who, before his 24th birthday, had never scored more than six goals in a season. The guy who scored a grand total of 21 goals in his first six seasons as a professional, split between seven different teams in four different countries.
And, no, this was neither a silly friendly nor an easy three points against a CONMEBOL cream puff (not that there are that many anymore). This was the visit of Colombia and the stakes were huge. Argentina were out of the Russia 2018 qualifying positions before Tuesday's game. No need to panic too much with seven games to go but you never know. Fail to win vs. Colombia and with no more games until March 2017, you're looking at four months of pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth on a biblical scale.
So yeah, at the very least Edgardo Bauza -- who had the dubious distinction of being the first Argentina boss in decades with a losing record (and that's with Messi) before kick-off -- deserves the "Balls of Steel" award. Either that or maybe AC/DC can rededicate their 1976 classic to him.
Starting Pratto turned out to be a masterstroke. So what if some of the delicate passes directed his way bounced off his meaty thighs? Or if he mistimed a tackle so badly it looked as if he was operating in a different time zone, or raced after loose balls with all the speed of a refrigerator?
Pratto sweetly headed Messi's cross past David Ospina to make it 2-0 to Argentina. He also clogged the space, contested headers and cleared room into which Di Maria and Messi could run. And he held up the ball, winning fouls and allowing his teammates to push the team's centre of gravity further up the pitch.
He also served as a reminder that this remains a dynamic sport where there is such a thing as addition by subtraction. Meaning that if you subtract a skillful superstar striker and replaced him with a pedestrian target man, then you may just be better off. And that the folks who peddle the old cliche whereby "great players always find a way to play together" are big massive Pinocchios.
They don't. If they did, Argentina -- who could, if they so chose, line up the best striker in Italy, the best striker in the Premier League and the best player in the world -- would have spent the last six years rewriting the record books.
This doesn't mean that you can't strike a balance to accommodate all your stars, let alone that Pratto (PRATTO!) has suddenly become some kind of magic ingredient for La Albiceleste. It does mean that especially at the national team level, where there is less time to train and work on chemistry, sometimes a blue-collar hard-hatted lunch pail type who simply does one thing and does it well can make the players around them better. Even if it does mean sacrificing a superstar or two.
I'm not sure when you'll see him again unless you follow the Brazilian league. And even then, you might only get so see him intermittently. He spends a fair chunk of time backing up Fred, the butt of a zillion jokes at the the 2014 World Cup.
Most likely, it won't be until Argentina's next qualifier where, at best, you'll get a glimpse of him peering out from the end of the bench. Realistically, in the long run, Argentina are like most teams: they're better with more quality in the lineup and that means finding a way for Aguero or Higuain or both to play with Messi. But in a one-off, must-win, Pratto was the perfect tonic.
The headlines will likely be all about Messi (they usually are). And with two assists, one goal and another dazzling performance, it's only right that he be praised for his performance. There will also be, understandably, talk about the players' media boycott announced after the match.
But this was Pratto's day in the sun. The day he stopped his country's run to the 2018 World Cup from going badly off the rails. The day he helped Messi be Messi. The day he reminded us that if you assemble your parts in the right way, the whole can be much greater than the sum of those very same parts.