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Nicolas Gaitan: Why Man Utd boss Ferguson sees him as Scholes successor

A full international before 20, he's a reserved character, supremely gifted and admired by Sir Alex Ferguson.

No, we're not talking about Phil Jones or his Manchester United teammate Chris Smalling, but Nicolas Gaitan, the exciting Benfica winger, whose not only won public praise from Sir Alex, but also younger brother Martin, United's chief scout.

The Argentine has just returned to Europe after a recall to the national team by new coach Alejandro Sabella. Flying in the Champions League with Benfica, Gaitan was singled out by United manager Ferguson after last month's 1-1 draw in Lisbon. The previous week, Martin Ferguson was spotted at a Benfica game on a scouting trip and confessed his admiration for the 20 year-old.

Gaitan's agent, Jose Iribarren, has already acknowledged the interest of bigger clubs since the start of the season: "I know there are big clubs watching Gaitán, but so far no one has contacted me to express interest in an official way."

While Ferguson pulled back on Wesley Sneijder, the Inter Milan playmaker, over concerns he would block the progress of midfield-types like Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe, it can be argued Gaitan offers something different to what United's FA Youth Cup winners possess.

A left-sided winger blessed with pace and dynamic individual skill, Gaitan was signed 18 months ago by Benfica as a direct replacement for Angel di Maria, following his sale to Real Madrid. While some inside the club questioned shelling out €8.4 million for the then Boca Juniors prospect, they took assurance from the famed Argentine talent spotter, Ramón Maddoni, that this kid was the real deal.

Fernando Redondo, Carlos Tevez, Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme, Juan Pablo Sorin, Fernando Gago, Emilio Insúa, the list runs long of Argentine players first uncovered by the canny eye of Maddoni.

Of Gaitan, he's as enthusiastic as he was when first seeing Manchester City striker Tevez and Boca legend Riquelme.

"Within two to three years, Nico will be worth €40 million," Maddoni defiantly says. "He has all the ability to bring as much joy to Benfica fans as Di Maria did.

"He's at the same level as Di Maria. He has a great change of pace and is very intelligent."

It was Maddoni who first spotted Gaitan for Boca when just eight years of age playing futsal for Jose Paz, just outside the capital, Buenos Aries.

While frail, Gaitan displayed plenty of talent as Maddoni explained, "We just worked on the fundamentals. He had the ability, the speed, the aggression. We just worked to improve this further."

Even before breaking into the Boca first team, the club's massive support were already well aware of Gaitan, with the young teen being dubbed 'El Canhoto Maravilha' - 'The Lefty Wonder'.

For all the excitement Gaitan brings to fans, his reserved nature is almost legendary in Argentina. The midfielder is known for his love of an afternoon kip and his humility has charmed the usually ruthless local media corp.

While at Boca, his agent offered to buy Gaitan a car. But the midfielder knocked it back, insisting he was happier travelling to and from the training ground on the train with his teammates.

"I was with my friends," he says, "and if I'm happy with how things are, why change?"

Even the reaction to his first call-up to the senior Argentina squad suggests Gaitan isn't likely to allow the game's riches to go to his head.

"Diego (Maradona) often calls me to see how I am," recalls Gaitan, who is close to the Boca and Argentine icon. "I thought he was just seeing how I was.

"But then he told me I'd been selected. I couldn't believe it. I don't think anyone did when it was made public. But psychologically, it was a very important step for me."

At Boca, as Maddoni conceded, there were doubts about him physically and Gaitan almost quit after spending a season training with the first team, but without actually getting a call.

But others recognised his talent and at 18, Almeria came in for him with a €750,000 offer for a four-year option. But both Boca and Gaitan turned it down.

"Maddoni always told me to stay with Boca, because he trusted that I would play. He gave the example of Gago (of Real Madrid), who played in the juniors for some time and later left as a star," says Gaitan.

Less than two years after that Almeria offer, Gaitan was being sold to Benfica for €8.4 million and is now on the wanted lists of Europe's biggest clubs, including United.

But the Premier League champions will face competition for the Argentine should Benfica choose to sell.

As Iribarren warns, Gaitan's profile is fast growing across Europe, with Inter Milan scouts among those keeping United's reps company at the Estádio da Luz this season.

Benfica's board are pleased with themselves, having just secured Gaitan's signature to a new five-year contract. But many observers believe the move is just in preparation of a sale in 2012, with his new deal including a £40 million buyout clause. Benfica know Gaitan won't push for a move and can use his release clause as a jumping off point for any expected auction.

Indeed, despite the new contract, the midfielder remains on Ferguson's radar, with intermediaries making it known that the Scot sees Gaitan as a more affordable alternative to Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder. While predominantly a winger, Ferguson's spies are convinced the youngster can be used centrally.

Quiet, humble and tipped for greatness, all Gaitan is missing is the ginger hair and you can see why Ferguson has been so determined in his pursuit of the young lad from San Martin.

Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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