Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Revival of El Pincha and Sabella

With a Copa Libertadores Championship, a World Club Championship Runners-Up spot and now an Apertura Primera Division title in the last 2 years, Estudiantes are clearly the form club side in Argentina. Not bad for a side outside of the traditional "big five" clubs and one who has been evicted from their spiritual home.

The man who has driven them to their recent success will be a familiar face and name to many British football supporters. Allejandro (Alex) Sabella joined Sheffield United in the Summer of 1978 from River Plate. United boss Harry Haslam, looking for some Argentinian flair to pep up the midfield of his middle of the road Second Division side.  Sabella certainly made an impact, with fans still fondly remembering his outstanding ball skills. However, standing head and shoulders above his team mates, he could not carry the team alone and with United by now down in the Third Division he moved to Leeds United in 1980.

His move to Leeds would best be described a disappointment and, despite brief moments of flair to thrill the fans, 23 games and 2 goals later Sabella moved back to his homeland and joined the pincharratas (rat stabbers) of La Plata. As part of a creative midfield trio with Ponce and Trobbiani, Sabella he was the driving force behind the renaissance of the club.  

Back in 1967 Estudiantes had won the league title, the first time that a team outside of the “big five” had won a professional league title. They subsequently won the following year’s Copa Libertadores title and retained the trophy for a further 2 years. They also won the 1968 Inter-Continental Club Cup defeating Manchester United 2-1 on aggregate. Throughout the Seventies their fortunes fluctuated without any great success. Their next upturn in form coincided with Sabella’s return with the league title won consecutively in 1982 and 1983.

Sabella’s playing career continued in Brazil and Mexico, before a coaching career assisting fellow international Daniel Passarella. This included largely unsuccessful spells with the national teams of Argentina and Brazil and club sides Parma, Corinthians and River Plate. Only a Mexican championship with Monterrey offered a degree of success.

Back at Estudiantes, the club had been forced to leave their home stadium of 99 years, the Estadio Jorge Luis Hirschi due to safety concerns over the wooden stands and an ongoing dispute with the city authorities over their refusal to move to the new municipal stadium. A dispute that has only just been settled and a move back to the renovated stadium is due to be completed next year.

Following the removal of former international Jorge Burruchaga as coach in 2006, David Beckham’s old foe Diego Simeone took over and built the team around Juan Sebastián Verón. Veron was returning hero, 11 years after his initial departure from the club. Despite losing in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Copa Libertadores, the 2006 Apertura was the club's first League title in 23 years in a winner takes all play off against Boca Juniors who had tied on points after the regular season games had been completed. It was a historic season, the club recording ten straight wins (equalling the club record) and achieving an unprecedented 7–0 victory against Gimnasia in the La Plata derby.

After Simeone left following the 2007 Apertura the club went through two managers in quick succession, until in March 2009 Sabella returned, this time as manager. The first time in his career he had taken sole managerial control. The team immediately started to improve their standing in the league, rising from second bottom to 6th. And, from looking like they wouldn’t make it out of their preliminary group, they went unbeaten in ten Copa Libertadores games to reach the 2009 final, where they defeated Brazilian side Cruzeiro 2-1 on aggregate. Verón was chosen as the competition’s most valuable player, and Mauro Boselli was CL top goalscorer. Sabella had brought the best out of a talented, but failing side

With the Copa Libertadores title, Estudiantes earned the right to represent South America in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Entering at the semi-final stage they despatched Asian Champions Pohang Steelers 2–1 and more than held their own against Barcelona, only to lose 2–1 in extra time. A respectable performance, which drew plaudits from media and fans alike.

After the Club World Cup participation, Estudiantes finished second in the 2010 Clausura, and started the 2010 Apertura facing a familiar problem for successful Argentine clubs - a failure to hold on to their best players. Viewed as a team in transition, following the departure of Jose Sosa (Napoli), Mario Boselli (Wigan Athletic), Marcos Angeleri (Sunderland), amongst others it was still slightly surprising to see them quickly join Vélez Sarsfield in a two horse race for the title.

Even more surprising given the campaign also coincided with strong speculation linking Sabella with the position of Argentine national coach, following the departure of Diego Maradona post World Cup.   The irony of Sabella being a potential replacement for Maradona was not lost on Sheffield United supporters. After all, Sabella’s signing for the Blades came about, only after the Blades’ board had deemed the fee required by Argentinos Juniors for Maradona to be excessive for a teenager.

Whereas, most Argentine managers work in fear of an impending sacking, Sabella had no such worries and only an opportunity like the job of national coach job was likely to tempt him away from Estudiantes.  In many quarters he was viewed as a favourite for the job, even missing an emotional reunion at Bramall Lane for a friendly in August as negotiations reportedly commenced. In the end the caretaker coach Sergio Batista , who had successfully coached Argentina to 2008 Olympic gold, was offered the full time position.

To many South American commentators, Estudiantes were not the most entertaining team to watch. By his own admission Sabella commenced and completed the season without a natural Number 9. That is not to say the quality of play was poor, where they were strong was in having a good team this where everyone contributed to the success and not just a few special individuals. Goals were spread around the team (with fifteen different goalscorers in nineteen matches) and as a defensive unit they conceded just eight goals over the season. Veron described the tactics “Sabella’s idea at the start was to get a lot of people pushing forward from the back, attempting to find the element of surprise, and trying to cover up the absence of 9”.

With further success comes renewed speculation, this time Sabella is linked with former giants and former club River Plate. Whether he will move on, time will tell. Speaking after their tense final day victory over Arsenal, captain Veron said, “He has given us a lot, and has also learned a lot from this group. We know [each other] practically by heart. Of course, like everything else, it is difficult to maintain a project for many years, but over time he has. You never get tired of winning. If anything unites us, it’s his sincerity and dedication to work. But we should ask him what he desires for his [future] career.”

Argentine football  is never stable, with high turnover of managers and players contributing to the fact that there have been 12 Apertura/Clausura chhampions since 2000. It's clear that success comes in bursts for clubs like Estudiantes, with players, coach and structure all in harmony for spell. Is this period coming to an end and is it a natural departure point for Sabella? His first spell in management, starting at the relatively old age of 55 has been a successful one. Does he risk tarnishing it by staying, or is his stature equally at risk by pitching up at River Plate, where expectations are much higher and with it an increased risk of perceived failure? Time will tell....

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