Coaching latecomer guides Estudiantes’ bid for world club title

Two contrasting coaching stories stand out in Argentina; both involving men who had little or no first-hand managerial experience until this year.

There is Diego Maradona, who at the end of last year took charge of Argentina with only a few club matches under his belt in the mid-1990s and struggled to get his national team to the 2010 World Cup.

Then there is Alejandro “Alex” Sabella, the former River Plate midfielder who displayed his ball skills at Sheffield United and Leeds United in England between 1978 and 1981.

Sabella has been a big success at Estudiantes de La Plata in a short time, taking over in mid-March during the group stage of the Libertadores Cup and steering them, unbeaten from his debut, to their South American title and a place in the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.
The 55-year-old had never before been in charge of a team, having spent the bulk of his coaching career as Daniel Passarella’s assistant, notably with Argentina from 1994 to the 1998 World Cup in France, and also with clubs in Mexico and Brazil.

Sabella was an Estudiantes man, having played there and won two Argentinian league titles in 1982 and 1983, and he slotted in brilliantly with his relaxed, low-profile style of management and astute judgement of opposition sides.

His success, with only five defeats in 36 matches in all competitions up to the end of October and no losses in 11 matches in the Libertadores Cup campaign, had observers wondering whether Passarella’s achievements as River Plate coach were not largely down to the brains of Sabella in the background.

“The experience I had in all these years in my career as Daniel’s assistant can help me at all times, not only in this matter of the [Club] World Cup,” says Sabella, who is careful about the favourites tag that his team and Barcelona will carry into the semi-finals of the tournament in Abu Dhabi, warning that the champions of the other continents deserve utmost respect.

“Cruzeiro were favourites and they didn’t win,” he says of the team that Estudiantes beat to lift the Libertadores Cup in July. “On the pitch you see the best, on the track you see the good horses.”

Referring to Estudiantes’ three Libertadores Cup wins from 1968 to 1970, Sabella continues: “I trust in the heritage handed down to the players because they know the club.

“You’ve got to play the matches, you have to respect your rivals because they are very tough.

“A lot of people talk about Barcelona but there is a prior match that could be against Atlante, a very good team, and the African representatives will be very tough, they are physically strong. The Asians are also fast, resistant though perhaps technically they don’t have the same quality.”

Asked whether he could learn anything useful from Barcelona’s difficulties in the Champions League against Rubin Kazan, Estudiantes’ boss says: “When you analyse rivals you have to analyse the opponents that

played against them and if you’re used to 4-4-2 and those opponents line up differently it’s not so much use to you.

“In this case, the Russian team won one match and drew the other so that gives you something to think about but you have to see if you have the same kind of players as them with similar characteristics.”