Enter Sandman

FIRST FEATURED ON OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT

Pepe Sand LanusLanus delivered a devastating display of heavy metal football to win the second Argentine league title in their history in emphatic fashion, beating San Lorenzo 4-0 in the Monumental – a result that will give los Cuervos nightmares for some time.

The tone was set early.  Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron picked up the ball in his own half and went on a surging run, creating a chance for Jose Sand within two minutes.  They didn’t have to wait long for their first, Junior Benitez heading el Granate in front from a lovely Maxi Velazquez cross after 18 minutes.  Lanus maintained the pressure, never relinquishing their stranglehold on the game, eventually doubling their lead in the second half through Almiron’s long range strike before Sand and Lautaro Acosta put the gloss on a richly-deserved victory.

There could be no complaints; Lanus were by far the best team in the league and their final win over San Lorenzo epitomised everything they had done so well throughout the Torneo Transicion.  With the league split into two 15-team groups and reverting to the short season format to realign their footballing calendar with Europe, Lanus romped to the top of Group B with 12 victories from their first 14 matches, ending with 38 points from 16 games.  To put it into context, there have been plenty of teams who have won 19-game seasons with fewer points.

Key to their success was the return of prodigal son Jose Sand.  After a largely nomadic start to his career, the burly striker had been prolific for Lanus when they won their maiden league triumph in 2007.  A move to Al-Ain in the UAE followed – presumably as much for nominative determinism as the promise of petrodollars – before spells at Deportivo La Coruna, Tijuana and then back in Argentina, unsuccessfully, with Racing, Tigre, Argentinos and Boca Unidos.

A decent season with Aldosivi persuaded Lanus to bring the 35-year-old back to La Fortaleza for a swansong.  Sand rolled back the years to smash in 15 goals in 17 games, taking his career tally to an incredible 73 in 100 in a Lanus shirt, winning the golden boot by some distance.  His particular blend of muscularity, aerial ability and cute movement saw Pepe perfect the art of virtually only scoring inside the six-yard box, with his five penalties accounting for all of his ‘long-range’ efforts.  It was the perfect homecoming for the Bobby Zamora of Argentinian football.

Lanus AcostaSand was just one link to the title-winning side of 2007.  Wide forward Lautaro Acosta’s form saw him called up to the Argentina national team, while Maxi Velazquez was a regular at left-back and Agustin Pelletieri also featured after returning on a free from Tigre.  A connection with the past was accentuated further by the fact that the win over San Lorenzo came on the birthday of former player Diego Barisone, who tragically died in a car accident last July.  Players and fans alike dedicated the victory to him on a day of mixed emotions for the Lanus family.

Another notable feature of Lanus’ league win was a strong contribution from their Paraguayan contingent.  Miguel Almiron – no relation to boss Jorge – was the breakthrough star of the season, adding dynamism on the left of Lanus’ midfield and exerting a growing influence on games as the campaign wore on, capped by his man-of-the-match performance versus San Lorenzo.  The 22-year-old, compared to Angel Di Maria by Cerro Porteno president Juan Jose Zapag, earned a call up to the Paraguay squad for the Copa Centenario and is now attracting attention from the likes of Inter Milan.

Arguably as important to Lanus’ success was their solid defence, which only conceded 10 goals all season, marshalled by another young Paraguayan, Gustavo Gomez.  Now in his third season with the Granate, Gomez formed an uncompromising centre-back partnership with Diego Braghieri, giving Lanus the platform on which to build their formidable side.  The powerful defender is now a target for the likes of Porto, Besiktas and Valencia.

The third of the Albiroja trio, Victor Ayala, may not have had as notable impact this season but has been a consistent performer over the last four years and his sensational long-range golazo in the Clasico del Sur against Banfield was an important goal at a crucial point of the campaign.  Elsewhere in the league, there were strong Paraguayan performances from Oscar Romero at Racing and unsung defensive duo of Diego Viera and Danilo Ortiz at Godoy Cruz.

To a certain extent, Lanus manager Jorge Almiron had the good fortune to inherit a squad with such a strong base left by predecessor Guillermo Barros Schelotto.  In Fernando Monetti, Lanus boast one of the best goalkeepers in the league and the likes of Nico Aguirre, Junior Benitez and Nicolas Pasquini are all proven, reliable performers.

Nevertheless, Almiron deserves immense credit for building upon these solid foundations.  As well as the aforementioned Sand, he has also brought in some canny loan signings who have made noteworthy contributions.  Jose Gomez has been a revelation at right-back; Ivan Marcone has added steel and metronomic passing to the midfield; while Pablo Mouche has unfussily complemented Acosta as a hard-working wide forward and managed to repress his termo traits.

What’s more, Almiron has managed to coax out consistent performances and more goals from playmaker Roman Martinez, who had only previously shone in fits and bursts for Tigre and Estudiantes.  After an unfortunate spell at Independiente, this triumph will come as vindication for Almiron who has managed to strike the perfect balance at Lanus.

lanus-campeonFor runners-up San Lorenzo, the manner of their final defeat seemed to give further credence to the grumblings surrounding manager Pablo Guede.  An early exit from the Libertadores was followed by a storming run of seven straight wins to pip Godoy Cruz at the top of Group A which seemed to alleviate the pressure on Guede somewhat.  But the loss saw complaints about the much criticised “Guede Method” and his Brendan Rodgers-esque style of management resurface.  Positives can be found in the form of Fernando Belluschi, Nico Blandi and Ezequiel Cerruti but it promises to be a summer of change in Boedo.

It was a disappointing campaign for the rest of the Big Five, mainly due to the prioritisation of the Libertadores.  River’s indifferent form continued and, like Racing, exited at the knock-out stages of the competition and as a result ended up mid-table in the league, while Boca remain the only Argentinian side left in the Libertadores.  Independiente finished third in Group A but as the only of the Big Five without the Libertadores should have done better and will see it as a missed opportunity.

Elsewhere, Rosario Central dazzled in the early rounds before the toils of playing two competitions caught up with them.  Dark horses Godoy Cruz were very unfortunate not to top Group A after an almost entirely new line up lead the way up until the final round of fixtures.  El Tomba’s strikeforce of Uruguayan Santiago Garcia and Ecuadorian Jaime Ayovi was one of the most deadly in the league and Fernando Zuqui excelled in midfield.  The Mendoza outfit also narrowly missed out on a guaranteed place in the Libertadores after Estudiantes, second place in Group B, beat them 1-0.  Estudiantes had a fine season, ushering through young talents like Santiago Ascacibar and Juan Cavallaro, but were never troubling runaway leaders Lanus.

The surprise package of the season came in the form of newly promoted Atletico Tucuman who proved that their early season victories over Racing and Boca were no flukes.  Although they were unable to ‘do a Leicester’, they continued their formidable home record at the Monumental Jose Fierro and played some exciting football spearheaded by talismanic Luis ‘Pulga’ Rodriguez, who scored his 100th goal for the club.

Down at the bottom of the league, relegation firefighter Ricardo Caruso Lombardi once again did his best Sam Allardyce impression to save Sarmiento from the drop.  Regardless about what you think about Caruso Lombardi as a man, his record speaks for itself, having now avoided relegation on seven different occasions.  However, it was one of Caruso Lombardi’s old clubs, Argentinos Juniors, who were on the end of his miracle working and after an absolutely awful campaign were relegated to the B.

Off the field, things were just as dramatic as chaos ensued in the vestibules of the AFA.  The power vacuum left by Julio Grondona has seen four of the Big Five, led by San Lorenzo vice-president and TV mogul Marcelo Tinelli, look to break away and create their own SuperLiga while Independiente remain firm under trade unionist Hugo Moyano.  After the debacle of the presidential vote in December, elections have once again been postponed as the saga rumbles on and on.

Atletico D

FIRST FEATURED ON OUTSIDE OF THE BOOT

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