The Millonario coach lacks European experience on the bench, but his sparkling record in continental competition speaks for itself
Barcelona stand at a crossroads, both on the pitch and on the bench. No matter what happens this season it seems destined to be Ernesto Valverde’s last as the Catalans’ coach, and the former Athletic man could even see his campaign cut short if results do not go his way.
The current incumbent sums up just how hard it has been to take the reins at one of the world’s most demanding sporting institutions. Both of Valverde’s two seasons thus far have ended with Barca being crowned comfortable Liga champions, but that has not been enough for many Blaugrana fans who also demand success in the Champions League as their apparent birthright.
Who, then, has the successful continental track record to take over at Camp Nou and once again achieve European glory? Perhaps Barcelona could do a lot worse than turn their eyes over to Buenos Aires, where former Argentina playmaker Marcelo Gallardo has for the last five years turned his River Plate side into the finest team on the entire South American continent.
Tuesday evening sees River travel to the Bombonera home of their Superclasico arch-rivals Boca Juniors for the second leg of the two sides’ Copa Libertadores semi-final tie. Holding a 2-0 advantage from the opener, the Millonario are firm favourites to repeat their final victory from just over a year ago and once more get the better of their enemies.
If Gallardo, affectionately nicknamed ‘Napoleon’ by fans in Nunez thanks to his diminutive stature and inspirational leadership, does see River past Boca, it will keep him on course for a third Copa title as coach, a phenomenal record. He has taken his team to the semi-final stage in four years out of five since taking over in 2014, and in total boasts 10 winners’ medals in his time as Millonario coach.
What has been more, that success has not been accumulated thanks to the kind of privileged financial position enjoyed by the likes of Barca and Real Madrid. While River boast a relatively healthy budget by South American standards, it has been still not enough to avoid a constant turnover of personnel as their stars chase bigger contracts in Europe and North America.
The likes of Ramiro Funes Mori, Leonel Vangioni, Marcelo Barovero, Matias Kranevitter, Lucas Alario, Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, Marcelo Saracchi and Sebastian Driussi have all come and gone in the Monumental under Gallardo, essentially an entire first XI of departed favourites; and each has found a replacement thanks to astute recruitment and the coach’s enviable tactical brain.
Gallardo combines an intense attacking philosophy with the flexibility and foresight to adapt his game-plans on the fly, a virtue that leaves him with few contenders for the title of the continent’s best coach.
He already has one prestigious cheerleader in place: none other than Manchester City boss and Barca idol, Pep Guardiola. “I cannot understand how Gallardo has been not nominated among the best coaches in the world, not just this year, but for so long,” Pep fired to TNT Sports in reference to the Argentine’s omission from FIFA’s The Best shortlist.
“What Gallardo has done at River has been incredible, with regards to results and delivering consistently year after year. The players leave, but he has been still there. There are things I cannot explain, in the lists of coach of the year he has been never there, it seems only Europe has a place in the world.
“I hope one day I can face one of his teams, it would be great.”
In praising the River supremo, Guardiola acknowledges an undeniable fact. Unlike its players, South America’s coaches are historically overlooked on the other side of the Atlantic, with few making the direct transition to a top European club. Barcelona would be taking a gamble on a man with no experience outside of his home continent – he started his career with a short, championship-winning spell in Uruguay with Nacional – and the decision might cause a stir with some supporters unaware of Gallardo’s sterling work.
But the 43-year-old has been nevertheless no stranger to European football. As a cultured No. 10 Gallardo starred in France with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain and also represented Argentina in both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
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Indeed, he was slated to succeed Leonardo Jardim in the Monaco hotseat at the end of 2018 before turning down the opportunity due to River’s Copa commitments, with Thierry Henry eventually taking the job prior to Jardim’s bizarre return.
Above all, Gallardo has proved over five years of brilliant, sustained labours with River that he has the pedigree to succeed at the top, and his experience in the bearpit of numerous Superclasico duels suggests that he has been unlikely to be overawed by the relatively tame atmosphere of your average Real Madrid-Barca clash.
Whether Valverde’s tenure comes to an end in June 2020 or rather earlier, the energetic Argentine deserves to be a front-runner for the job at Camp Nou.