Are you watching, Chelsea? Bielsa-disciple Crespo out for glory in Sudamericana final

Hernan Crespo Defensa y Justicia 2020-21
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While his chances of taking Frank Lampard's job are remote, the Argentine is building a name as one of South America's finest emerging coaches

With Frank Lampard's future in increasing doubt, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich could do worse this weekend than turn his attention to Cordoba's towering Estadio Mario Kempes.

There, another former Blues player, Hernan Crespo, will be aiming to guide his Defensa y Justicia side to victory in the Copa Sudamericana final against Lanus, with the chance to win the club's first-ever competitive title on the line.

Prior to 2020 the club had never even played in either the Libertadores or Sudamericana, and a win over their rivals from Buenos Aires' sprawling southern suburbs would constitute a huge achievement for Crespo, as well as further confirmation of his burgeoning reputation as a coach.

Admittedly, the idea of the 45-year-old making an immediate leap from Florencio Varela to Stamford Bridge is rather far-fetched, even if in absolute terms he would enter the job with more experience than Lampard's sole season at Derby County behind him.

Crespo is still in the apprenticeship phase of his career on the bench, which is now taking wind after a rocky start.

The former Chelsea, Inter, Parma and Argentina striker received his first, brief taste of life as a coach at Serie B side Modena back in 2015, lasting less than a year in the post.

He went on to take the reins at Banfield in his native Argentina but despite a promising start filled with goals and excitement, results failed to match expectations and he was sacked in September 2019, making way for club stalwart Julio Cesar Falcioni.

He would not be out of work long, though. The following January, Defensa came knocking, choosing him to lead their maiden Libertadores campaign having secured an historic runners-up spot in the Superliga the previous year under Sebastian Beccacece.

Frank Lampard Hernan Crespo Chelsea GFX

While as a player he notoriously clashed with Marcelo Bielsa, who believed during his time as Argentina boss that he and Gabriel Batistuta could not play together, Crespo has credited the Leeds manager as being one of his biggest influences.  “I still admire the way Bielsa trains and improves his players,” he told El Show de la Oral.

“That is one of the things I have tried to copy in my work.” With regards to career objectives, he is aiming high. “I dream of being Argentina's coach and achieving what I could not as a player: winning the World Cup,” he said. 

Under his watch, Defensa fell just short of qualifying from a competitive Libertadores group that included finalists Santos, Paraguayan giants Olimpia and Ecuador's Delfin, missing out on second place to the latter by just one point after going down to defeat in their final two matches.

By virtue of finishing third, they did secure passage into the second-tier Sudamericana, the South American equivalent to the Europa League, and after digesting that initial blow they have not looked back.

Crespo's charges went unbeaten through their eight knockout games, disposing of Sportivo Luqueno, Brazilian duo Vasco and Bahia and Chile's Coquimbo Unido to book their place in the final.

It is no mean achievement for a squad assembled largely through short-term loans facilitated by local super-agent Christian Bragarnik and which is subject to huge staff turnover; 12 new players arrived prior to the resumption of activities post-pandemic in September, while no fewer than nine departed.

Hernan Crespo Marcelo Bielsa GFX

Defensa under Crespo play a high-speed, direct game, with the backline located high up the field and centre-forward Braian Romero the focus of their offensive movements.

Romero, 29, is a typical success story. Farmed out by Independiente in 2020 and with little goalscoring reputation to precede him in his wandering career, he now sits top of the Sudamericana scoring charts with nine goals in just eight games. “I always tell Crespo he found my best position,” he told La Red ahead of Saturday's final.

“He is a coach who gives you huge confidence because he is always on top of players to correct many things and he is very honest.”

Were it not for the final, Crespo most likely would have already moved on to a fresh challenge. Three of Argentina's traditional giants, Racing Club, Independiente and San Lorenzo, were left without coaches at the end of 2020, and the Defensa boss was strongly linked with each post.

Ultimately, the urgent need to name replacements ahead of the start of the 2021 season in February meant that the clubs looked elsewhere this time. If and when Marcelo Gallardo decides to finally cut short his River Plate tenure,  one can imagine fellow Millonario idol Crespo would be first in line. Typically for the ever-thoughtful coach, he has already mapped out the next step.

Crespo PS

“I am living in Defensa day-to-day. I intend to go to a big South American side or look for a European opportunity, I'm not going to hold out for a Real Madrid,” he stated to TyC Sports in January.

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“River? There will be life after Marcelo, difficult or otherwise, but what he has achieved is brilliant.”

Whatever the outcome of the Sudamericana decider, Crespo is already well-established among a crop of promising Argentine coaches with the aspiration to succeed on either or both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

It may well be too early to talk about replacing his former team-mate Lampard as Chelsea boss; but the ex-sharpshooter looks likely to make as big a success of his coaching career as he did as a player.