Tuesday, May 21, 2024

SPORTS | 23-01-2021 10:40

Pepe and Pepo head Lanús’ push for second Copa Sudamericana title

The financial devastation caused by the events of the last 12 months prompted Lanús to look even more closely at their young talent.

When Pedro de la Vega came into this world on February 7, 2001, José Sand was already an established professional footballer, keen to try his luck in Brazil with Vitoria after starring in River Plate's youth divisions. More than two decades separate Lanús' stars; but today the Granate's hopes rest firmly on their shoulders as they gun for Copa Sudamericana final glory in Córdoba against Defensa y Justicia.

At 40 years of age (and just six months younger than coach Luis Zubeldía), Sand is the grand old man of Argentine football. In October he broke Ángel Labruna's long-standing record as the oldest player to score in a national competition with his goal against Boca Juniors. Pepe finished the Copa Diego Armando Maradona with three strikes and has to date added another four in the Sudamericana, spearheading Lanús' challenge following seven months out of action due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He has not done so alone, though. The financial devastation caused by the events of the last 12 months has prompted Lanús, already famed for their ability to bring through fresh young talent, to look even more closely at their kids. Local boy Lautaro Morales, 21, has come to the fore with a series of stunning performances between the posts, denying Vélez Sarsfield on several occasions to keep two clean sheets in the semi final and help his side past the Fortín.

No less than six of Zubeldías's starting XI in the second leg of that tie were 22 or younger and graduates of the Granate academy, while Sand and fellow club favourite Lautaro Acosta stood out as the sole members of the side aged 30 or over. The coach has a fine track record when it comes to bringing through new stars – at Racing Club he gave first-team spots to the likes of Ricardo Centurión, Rodrigo De Paul, Luciano Vietto and Bruno Zuculini – but this might prove his and Lanús' finest generation yet.

But it is De la Vega, nicknamed Pepo, who stands out as the club's brightest star. The Olavarría native made his bow in 2018 against Racing aged just 17 and quickly secured a regular place in Zubeldía's plans thanks to his impeccable technique on the ball and ability to break into the opposition area from out wide. Now he is considered one of Argentine football's most prized assets, with top European clubs such as Manchester City, Atalanta and Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United linked with his services.

The younger of Lanús' attacking pair admits that the presence of Sand alongside him has proved a wonderful learning experience. “Sand is an animal,” he beamed to ESPN back in December. “He is 40 and you see him training like everybody else, even a bit more. He constantly tells us we have to get better. And we go to him to listen and learn.

“When I have any doubts I ask him without any trouble, he is always willing, he answers and gives you his point of view... he is still intact and he makes us happy because he deserves it for all the work he also puts in.”

For just how long Lanús fans will continue to enjoy the duo's goals is by no means certain. Today's final, no matter how it turns out, will likely prompt an increase in transfer speculation around De la Vega, although previous reports of a multi-million dollar sale have ultimately come to nothing.

Sand, meanwhile, the club's all-time top scorer with more than one hundred strikes over three separate spells, will eventually have to hang up his boots. Indeed, he considered retiring during the Covid recess, and at the end of 2020 stated to ESPN: I am having trouble with several injuries. I think I could retire in June.”

Whatever the future holds, all of Lanús is looking forward to the chance of a second Sudamericana title. Coached by ex-Argentina ace Hernán Crespo and in strong form themselves, Defensa y Justicia will be no easy prospect; but if Pepe and Pepo manage to fire on all cylinders, the continental title will be within reach for Zubeldía's exciting young charges.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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