After a title run-in that promised a few twists and turns yet, the Superliga race will ultimately prove to be an anti-climax. That may be a disappointment for the neutrals – but players, directors, fans and everybody connected to 2018-19 champions Racing Club will not care a jot.
La Academia were crowned the new kings of Argentina last Sunday after a furious end to what proved to be a decisive weekend. Both Racing and Defensa y Justicia were held to 1-1 draws against Tigre and Unión respectively, ensuring the Avellaneda side an insurmountable lead for when the top two lock horns tomorrow in El Cilindro. While we were robbed of what would have been a truly epic last-day clash between the leaders, it is hard to argue that the best team has not prevailed over the past season.
Racing’s success has been inspired by three minds working in tandem across the club structure. From the bench Eduardo Coudet has proved a masterful – if at times slightly deranged – tactician, keeping his side at the top since the fourth round of fixtures and always a step ahead of their nearest rivals. ‘Chacho,’ who celebrated the title in typical style from the Tigre tunnel, after being sent off due to a bizarre fight with the fourth official over a botched late substitution – the combustible coach averages a red card every 10 games – has been accused of falling short in big games, allegations that surfaced again early in 2019 when Racing were dispatched by River and lost their Superliga lead. He also had to weather a bitter and public falling-out with the prodigious Ricardo Centurión, who has not featured for La Academia since that game.
The former Central coach came through that storm, ensuring that the reverse at the Monumental would be Racing’s second and final defeat of an otherwise near-flawless campaign. Under his guidance the club have turned their Cilindro into a fortress. Out of 36 possible home points they have harvested an incredible 32, going unbeaten and drawing only to Boca Juniors and Banfield along the way.
Thanks to Coudet, the 2018- 19 edition of Racing has outstripped even the sides that took titles in 2014 and 2001 and will most likely be remembered as the best Academia team since their heyday of the 1960s.
He has not worked alone, however. The coach’s arrival at the start of last year was accompanied by the return of a legend to Avellaneda.
Diego Milito, hero of the 2014 title, entered his beloved Academia at the head of a new Technical Secretariat, charged with the scouting and acquisition of new talent. “His mission,” Milito’s assistant secretary Diego Huerta explained to British online newspaper The Independent, “was to make Racing a champion again.” The results have been nothing short of spectacular.
Using an integral approach that covers every possible facet of the off-field game, from the youth teams to international scouting, Racing’s transfer policy has been a revelation. Gone are the endless media circuses over potential new signings and recruits picked straight from an agent’s little black book; La Academia have carefully identified and analysed each reinforcement to ensure he will play a role.
No system can ensure 100 per cent efficiency, but the vast majority of signings made under Milito – from the exceptional Chile international Gabriel Arias in goal, to hulking defensive pair Leonardo Sigali and Alejandro Donatti, right through to classy ex-Banfield forward Darío Cvitanich – have settled instantly and established themselves as priceless assets on the pitch.
But none of those transfers have played a bigger role in delivering this title than a man who needed no extra motivation during these tense weeks. A team-mate of Milito during the striker’s last days before retiring as a player, Lisandro López bleeds blue-and-white and, at 36, put his body on the line to make sure the crown was heading to his beloved Academia. Such was ‘Licha’s’ commitment to the cause that he could not even wait for the final whistle on Sunday to let his emotions loose: while the ball was still rolling against Tigre the veteran burst into tears waiting for a free-kick, with team-mate Nery Domínguez trying in vain to console him as it all became too much.
“I joined the celebrations 20 minutes later because I could not stop crying. It was beautiful, a moment of huge euphoria,” López, who won a host of titles during his European adventure with Porto and Lyon, admitted to Olé. “This was the biggest title of my career, I won the league with Porto with five games to spare in a team that played very well, but because of how the team played, because of the fans’ affection, this title was the biggest.”
It is also a title that without the 17 goals Lisandro contributed – sealing an individual award as the Superliga’s top scorer this season to boot – would have been, if not impossible, certainly far less probable. The native of Santa Fe province will now walk out in El Cilindro for the first time as a champion, the old stadium packed to the rafters and ready to give him the most rapturous ovations for the entire 90 minutes and long after the final whistle. Milito and Coudet too will receive heroes’ welcomes from the Academia faithful – and more tears from all involved are almost inevitable.