Sunday, December 2, 2012
Big in Oxford... and Buenos Aires
November has been quite a month for managers who aren't performing all that badly getting the sack. First Roberto Di Matteo, and now, seven thousand miles away, Matias Almeyda, who - rumours have it - was fired at half-past-midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning from his charge as River Plate manager. River admittedly didn't win a continental title six months ago, but the job Almeyda's done has hardly been as bad as some of his detractors seem to think.
Having retired from playing in the wake of River's 2011 relegation, Almeyda was the man who stepped up when the club needed a manager to take them through what proved to be a single season visit to La B, the colloquial name for the country's second division. In the second division, of course, the standard of competition was hardly what River are used to, but the pressure on everyone at the club was absolutely enormous - if they hadn't come straight back up, the reaction of many fans, not to mention the club's barra brava, wouldn't have borne thinking about.
Almeyda brought the club back to the Primera, as well as taking them on a run to the semi-final of the resurrected Copa Argentina, where they only went out on penalties to rivals Racing, and in the first 17 matches this season, he's stabilised them and got them into a position in the points-averaging table used to decide relegation where they're looking on course to stay up. He's lost just nine competitive matches out of sixty, and has been the longest-surviving of any River boss since Daniel Passarella became the club's president three years ago.
It wasn't good enough. A woeful performance away to Independiente in a derby last weekend - after which River were very lucky to return home with a 2-2 draw - meant that River have managed three draws and a defeat (against Racing) in their matches against the other 'Big Five' clubs so far this season. More importantly, it seems, it meant it's now mathematically impossible for River to end the Torneo Inicial - the previous Apertura and Clausura have been renamed Inicial and Final as from this season, for long-term Argentine football followers - with thirty points, the target the team were aiming for in this campaign.
Newly-promoted sides normally go for fifty points per season - that is, twenty-five per short campaign - as a target to stay up in the points average standings. Of course, River aren't just any newly-promoted club, and Almeyda's fallen victim to that increased pressure. And president Passarella has bowed to a related pressure himself; he's brought in the man he didn't want to employ, but who the fans have wanted back at River ever since he left.
After winning the 2002 Torneo Clausura, Ramon Diaz's contract was not renewed, bringing to an end his second spell as their manager - two periods during which he'd become the most successful boss in this very successful club's history. In late 2004, he popped up in the English fourth flight with his sons and his backroom staff at Oxford United, with whom he had a fine season in League Two before leaving almost as suddenly as he'd arrived. A championship with San Lorenzo followed in 2007 (he had an unhappy return there during 2010-11), as well as underwhelming spells at America of Mexico and Independiente. All the while, every River manager who's come under pressure has had to deal with comparisons and with calls for Diaz to return.
Although his recent achievements haven't been as impressive as his 1995-99 and 2001-02 times at River, the feeling has remained that his knowledge and links with the club, and his capacity to potentially bring back talented former players (Andres D'Alessandro, Martin Demichelis and Javier Saviola are some of the names who've been mentioned, though Argentine clubs are limited to two transfers in over the upcoming summer break), along with his attacking style, are what River should be aspiring to.
Diaz's standing with the press here is almost unparalleled as well, largely thanks to his capacity for self-aggrandisement (not that it hurts, of course, that with six Argentine league titles and a Copa Libertadores on his managerial record, he can back that talk up). If Argentina has an equivalent to Jose Mourinho - in terms of his media style, if not how his sides play - it's Ramón Diaz. On Friday, at his unveiling, he told the press conference; 'I'm the greatest manager in this club's history... with me in charge, they'd never have been relegated.'
In the media, River are immediately going to be installed as favourites to win the Torneo Final, the championship that will take place during the second half of the season. Never mind that the defence needs sorting and that the team need to kill more games off (they're the top flight's second highest scorers, but have drawn almost half their matches). With Diaz in charge as from next weekend's trip to San Martin de San Juan in the year's last league game, an already River/Boca-saturated media is going to go into overdrive, particularly if as expected one of the numerous fan favourites at Boca Juniors replaces the successful but unloved Julio Cesar Falcioni as their manager in the new year.
Amidst all of it, of course, Matias Almeyda finds himself on 'taxi duty', in his own words, for his daughters' school runs. He plans to return to managing soon, but only after taking a well-deserved (in my opinion) summer break, and travelling to Europe for a while, 'to learn about and refine some aspects of my tactics and coaching.' Almeyeda accepts he's got learning to do. If he takes his lessons on board, he could become a very good manager one day.
For now, though, River fans are happy to have another idol back at the club. Normally, the saying is 'third time lucky.' River will just be hoping that Diaz's third time as boss is anywhere near as impressive as his first two.