That old football cliche; it's more difficult to play against ten men. Does it therefore follow that it's even harder to play against nine? Diego Simeone's River Plate certainly put the theories to the test over the last month, and the answer would appear to be a resounding yes.
River Plate versus San Lorenzo in the last 16 of La Copa de Libertadores on the 9th May was a massive match; two top Argentine clubs, both with serious aspirations of winning the trophy (South America's equivalent of the Champions league), and a number intriguing sub-plots aswell:
San Lorenzo manager Ramon Diaz was a legendary ex-River Plate player and manager, at the helm during 'Los Millionarios' last golden era when they won the Libertadores in 96. But he was sacked by current River president, Jose Maria Aguilar, in 2002, only to be invited back at the beginning of this season. An offer Diaz rejected.
Ditto Andres D'Alessandro. The former River Plate playmaker also turned down a return to his former club, prefering, like Diaz, the lucrative salaries of San Lorenzo, who are bankrolled by millionaire TV presenter and king of tack, Marcelo Tinelli. "River didn't try hard enough to sign me", said D'Allesandro on the eve of the big match, adding fuel to an already potentially inflammatory encounter.
San Lorenzo won 2 1 at home in the first leg, leaving the tie perfectly in the balance. A week later, Simeone's side came out all guns ablazing in front of their 70,000 capacity home crowd, sweeping San Lorenzo aside in an impressive first half display of attacking and cohesive football, while pyro-technics lit up the terraces. Fans and team in harmony, Abelairas scored for River after 12 minutes and San Lorenzo's Rivero was sent off just before half-time.
Then Botinelli stupidly, and blatantly, elbowed River Plate's Uruguayan striker Sebastian Abreu in the face, conceding a penalty 13 minutes into the second half, which was neatly dispatched by Abreu himself. 2-0 to River (3-2 on aggregate), and San Lorenzo down to nine men.
What happened next is beyond explanation. River Plate seemed to freeze, unable to cope with the change in circumstances. Their defenders looked lost and nervous as if their whole game plan had been thrown off course by their numerical advantage. San Lorenzo's nine men scored twice in three minutes in front of stunned, and now silent, River Plate fans.
With a somewhat tragi-comic display of long range spooners, scuffed shots and miscued headers, River lost all their first half fluidity and were unable to break the nine men down. There were no more goals and San Lorenzo ran out winners over the two legs.
Highlights of the match here:
How does it happen? Surely footballers of this level ought to be able to make an extra man, or in this case, two extra men, count? But we have seen it so many times in every league in the world - why can't the team with superior numbers just simply out-pass their opponents? Shouldn't the manager be able to make telling substitutions? eg. take off a redundant defender, who is marking noone, and replace him with a more attacking player? In this age of prozone and attention to detail, do team's not prepare and practise playing against ten men. Or less? Especially considering how regularly sending offs occur?
In fairness to Simeone, he did make a substitution, and it could be argued that the change unsettled his team? "The only person responsible for what happened tonight is myself, thank you gentleman, that is all", he said in his post match conference that lasted all of 10 seconds. 'Increible' was the single word headline in many of the papers the next day, in the true essence of the adjective - 'beyond belief'.
River Plate as an institution was destoyed, but worse was to follow in the aftermath. Midfielder Oscar Ahumada blamed the crowd."There was a silence after the first San Lorenzo goal and that affected the players", he said, "it's not like at Boca where the fans continue to sing and cheer the team". Blasphemy. River Plate fan forums, aswell as some directors, demanded Ahumada left the club forthwith for this act of treason.
River had lost to Boca in the league a week beforehand, an insipid performance, and the Boca fans had thrown 'maiz' (chicken-feed) at the River players as they descended the team bus, a reference to 'Chickens' as River are historically called by other clubs for supposedly bottling big occasions. But now, in an unprecedented incident, River Plate fans themselves threw chicken feed at their own players at the first home match after the San Lorenzo defeat. "The club is self-destructing", said President Aguilar in a resigned, but frankly honest, assessment of the situation.
The only player exempt from criticism in the eyes of the fans was Ariel Ortega, who hadn't appeared against San Lorenzo due to yet another bout of alcoholism. Stories emanating from the club suggested that the rest of the squad were tired of his behaviour and the number of training sessions he missed. Even River Plate's Barras Bravas (hooligans) had split into two factions, fighting among themselves in pre-planned armed battles that had lead to a murder last year. Disasterous times for the club both on and off the pitch, and, as if all this wasn't enough, things seemed to be going quite smoothly at Boca Juniors, where Riquleme and Palermo's goals had seen them through to the semi-final of the Libertadores.
However, in what can only be a testament to Simeone's excellent man-management skills, River Plate somehow have managed to turn it all around over the last few weeks, perhaps helped by Boca and San Lorenzo concentrating on the Libertadores and fielding reserves in crucial league games.
The key match came away at Colon where River's defensive king-pin Ponzio received a red card after only 19 mins. Like the San Lorenzo match, but in reverse, the sending off seemed to galvanise River Plate's remaining ten men. Recalled Ariel Ortega, rolling back the years at 34 and pulling the strings behind the strikers, set up Villagra for a quite brilliant opeing goal in the 2 1 victory.
Despite the boos, Ahumada has played like a man possessed ever since he made his unfortunate remarks, turning the jeers from his own fans into silence, and then eventually into cheers, an outstanding player in River's run in.
While San Lorenzo went onto lose to La Liga (Ecuador) in the Libertadores, amidst squad squabbling over the Tinelli bonus money and the resignation of Ramon Diaz, Boca lost their semi -final to Fluminense (Brazil), and suddenly it is only River Plate who have ended up with something to celebrate.
"River Plate Campeon - I can hardly believe we're saying it", said the commentator on Sunday afternoon as River sealed the Argentine championship, their first trophy in four years, "but that's what it says on the screen - it just shows the contadictory nature of football", he pondered.
By then, the festival was in full-swing in the Monumental after the 2 1 victory over Olympo. Once again, Ortega and 'the Dwarf', who scored both goals, had been the outstanding pair (at 1 metre 60 is Buonanotte the smallest player in world football?). Together they produced some sublime moments, Ortega setting up the championship winning goal with a perfect defence-splitting pass to ten minutes from the end.
River v Olympo goals here.
Suddenly, it all looks rosy for River Plate and manager Simeone. It's a team full of 'pibes' (young players) that could be on the cusp of another successful era - providing their opponents don't have too many players sent off, of course!!