Faced with a seemingly insurmountable second-leg deficit, River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo nevertheless refused to shirk the challenge.
“We have already played a few perfect games, but the thing is, you have to feel it. If you can feel it, then the action starts.”
The second leg against an almost criminally timid and withdrawn Verdao will go down in the books as another perfect Gallardo game, even if it was not quite enough to overturn an enthralling tie.
River prevailed 2-0 in Sao Paulo and also saw a goal and two penalty shouts turned down by VAR by the most razor-thin of margins, thus falling just short of what would have been an historic comeback.
Rafael Borre also rattled the crossbar during a manic end to proceedings, in which River, despite being reduced to 10 men, refused to give up as Palmeiras hung on for dear life. Indeed, the stats told the story: the visitors accumulated 23 shots, 11 on target, while the Brazilians failed to test Franco Armani even once.
Still, Palmeiras survived and while River’s marvellous effort gained the admiration of fans, neutrals and (whisper it quietly) even a few Boca Juniors supporters, it may also mark the beginning of the end for Gallardo’s brilliant spell at the Monumental.
The former Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco and Argentina playmaker was a novice on the bench when he first took the reins in 2014 from fellow club favourite Ramon Diaz.
Having retired in 2011 at Nacional, he was then appointed coach at the Montevideo side, lifting the Uruguayan Primera Division on his first attempt before departing for Buenos Aires.
Any fears that he might not be cut out for the River bench, though, were quickly dispelled as Gallardo claimed the Copa Sudamericana at the end of his first season in Belgrano, disposing of none other than Boca at the semi-final stage.
That was the first of 11 trophies won by the club during the last six-and-a-half years, including two Libertadores. It represents a streak of sustained success which places ‘El Muneco’ alongside the likes of Diaz and Angel Labruna as one of the Millo’s most successful coaches ever.
Few South American bosses stay as long as two or three years with the same club– never mind almost seven. But what makes Gallardo’s triumphs all the more astounding is that they have been achieved with River continually selling his best players.
Gallardo has been dealing with a constant rebuilding process, working with fewer and fewer resources each time as a result of Argentina’s perpetually stumbling economy.
However, while the likes of Ramiro Funes Mori, Matias Kranevitter, Marcelo Barovero, German Pezzella, Carlos Sanchez, Lucas Alario and Exequiel Palacios moved on to new, more lucrative pastures, River remained in South America’s elite, and took pleasure in tormenting Boca time and again in spite of the Xeneize’s far superior financial power.
The philosophy, after all, remained unchanged: a strong spine, expansive, high-pressure football and the ability and desire to take on the continent’s best and win, while almost always remaining on the front foot.
If Gallardo’s great side has not by any means collapsed, though, it has certainly diminished.
The pandemic has necessitated further sales without replacements on hand, and the exit of Lucas Martinez Quarta, in particular, has caused serious defensive troubles that were exploited by both Palmeiras and Independiente last week. In addition, Juan Quintero’s departure robbed River of a unique creative force and impact player.
Now their Copa adventure is over, further exits are almost inevitable.
Lucas Pratto left for Feyenoord just days before the semi-final. Midfielder Nacho Fernandez, who was left in tears at the final whistle on Tuesday, has been closely linked to Celta.
Nicolas de la Cruz, Gonzalo Montiel, Borre and youngster Julian Alvarez will all likely be subject to interest from Europe in the coming weeks. All could feasibly leave by the end of the January transfer window, with no promise of new arrivals to fill their places.
And what of Gallardo himself? “When the Copa finishes I will speak about my future using my head,” he signalled ahead of the Palmeiras clash.
“Gallardo has what it takes to coach a big European side, without a doubt,” ex-Atletico Madrid assistant German Burgos, who played alongside him at River, told ESPN in October.
The coach has long been linked with making the move across the Atlantic Ocean, having been previously touted as a potential Barcelona boss, but something has always stood in the way, making it the wrong time to leave – the prospect of going all the way once again in the Libertadores.
El Muneco declined to answer any questions in Tuesday’s press conference, stating that “What I saw today made me proud… I thank my players for the game they played; it dignifies my profession.”
Much will depend on Gallardo whether he feels he has the energy to build yet another all-conquering River team almost from scratch, or whether, at 44, he deems the time has finally come to try his luck outside South America, perhaps after a short period of rest if he steps down in the aftermath of this Libertadores exit.
Source : goal.com