Exactly 20 years ago Luis Zubeldia was a lanky, long-haired midfielder playing for Argentina‘s Under-20s. Two decades later, still with the air of a Lynyrd Skynyrd roadie, he stands on the verge of his greatest triumph.
As a player, things did not turn out as Zubeldia would have wanted. After a serious knee injury brought a premature end to his playing career, he turned his attentions to coaching.
At the age of 28 he took charge of Lanus, a traditional club in the Argentine first division with a sizeable support base. He has since coached in Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, briefly in Spain and Paraguay. Zubedldia returned to Lanus in 2018 and this weekend has an opportunity to lead them to continental glory. On Saturday they play in the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s Europa League equivalent, where they take on Defensa y Justicia in an all-Argentine clash.
Zubeldia’s opposite number is five years younger — and in the early stages of a coaching career that holds out considerable promise. Hernan Crespo will be the first to confess that he was not the most naturally talented centre-forward around. But he made himself into a world-class operator, a star in Serie A and with the Argentine national team, based on hard work, intelligence, and dedication. The early signs are that he is bringing the same qualities to bear in his new profession. Immaculately dressed at the side of the pitch, he will surely be aiming to take that navy suit all the way to the top — and a continental title would be some feather to have in his hat.
Defensa y Justicia is a good place to cut his teeth. Like Lanus, they come from the southern sprawl of greater Buenos Aires, where every neighbourhood seems to boast a professional football team. But Defensa y Justicia — or ‘the Falcon’ as they will henceforward be referred to — have much less tradition.
They have only been a first division club since 2014, but they are well run, with a distinct identity on the field. The players change frequently as those who catch the eye are sold — Crespo’s predecessor resigned in protest at player sales — but the system usually stays the same — a back three and a team that attempts to pass its way through midfield. Having a defined model of play makes it easier to assimilate new players, for example, key holding midfielder Enzo Fernandez arrived on loan from River Plate as recently as October.
The existence of an identity and long-term project at Defensa y Justicia has proved beneficial to a number of coaching careers; Jorge Almiron, now in Spain with Elche, Ariel Holan (Universidad Catolica) and Juan Pablo Vojvoda (Union la Calera), doing well in Chile and Sebastian Beccacece, who has just left Racing and is being linked with the Chile national team, all enjoyed successful flights with the Falcon. Crespo is the next in line.
But on Saturday, in the afternoon heat of Cordoba, just over 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, Crespo will have to stop the Lanus attack before he seeks to impose the passing game of his side.
In contrast, for his 12 years of coaching experience, Zubeldia is younger than his centre-forward Jose Sand, six months short of 41, and in his third spell with Lanus. Clearly, speed is not Sand’s greatest asset, but it never was. He is an old-fashioned penalty area predator. He lives for goals — and the absence of fans during the pandemic has made it possible to hear his bellow of triumph every time he scores.
In support of him, Nico Orsini is a subtle and dangerous second striker. Experienced left-winger Lautaro Acosta is missing through suspension — which increases the responsibility further on the other attacking midfielder, Pedro De La Vega, who at just 19, is one of the brightest talents in the Argentine game. Skillful, with a rocket of a shot and filling out physically, De La Vega is already on the radar of major European clubs. He has also been getting through plenty of defensive work down the right touchline. In the absence of Acosta, Zubeldia may opt to remove some of the marking duties and give him more freedom to put the Defensa y Justicia back three under pressure.
Crespo, meanwhile, will be hoping that his busy midfield — 20-year-old Valentin Larralde, who was especially impressive in the semi-final, can get a grip on the game and serve as a supply line for striker Braian Romero.
The tactical battle should be intriguing — and one young Argentine coach is going to emerge from the game with a continental title to put on the resume.