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Fernando Gago: Ex-Real Madrid midfielder now in the frame for Boca Juniors coaching job

Of all the rivals he faced in his career, Fernando Gago tended to suffer his worst misfortunes when lining up against Marcelo Gallardo's River Plate.

The wonderfully elegant midfielder, who could have gone on to be one of the world's best in his position had it not been for his chronic injury problems, suffered no fewer than three serious Achilles heel ruptures in Superclasicos while playing for River's arch-rivals Boca Juniors, in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Those setbacks, added to two separate cruciate ligament tears, all in the space of five years, ultimately forced Gago to hang up his boots at the end of last year at the relatively young age of 34.

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Now, he is up against River once more, this time from the safety of the bench, in one of the most important matches so far in his fledgling coaching career.

On Thursday, the coach of Aldosivi returns to River's Estadio Monumental home for the second time since taking over command of the Mar del Plata outfit at the start of 2021.

But while that last trip, which ended 4-1 in the hosts' favour, was little more than a dead rubber for Gago and his troops, bottom of the Copa Liga Profesional group after a difficult debut season on the bench, much more is at stake this time round.

The ex-Real Madrid and Argentina ace returns to Nunez flying high in the league standings, and victory would mean Aldosivi finish the round joint-top after eight games. It is a remarkable turnaround for a team which managed just three victories in the first half of the year, and one which has delighted their thoughtful young coach.

“I think we played a great game today,” Gago signalled following Saturday's 3-0 thrashing of Copa champions and fellow early title hopefuls Colon. “We managed to take our chances.

“They had their chances, with their quality and play, they threatened. But the team stood firm, played as we wanted and I'm really happy with the win... speaking in general terms, it was a complete performance.”

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Perhaps just as important as the results – Aldosivi have won four of their last six, with only a last-minute equaliser suffered at the hands of Atletico Tucuman denying them a fifth – is the manner in which they have come.

Right from the start, and despite severe budgetary limitations which mean his first-team squad is largely made up of Primera and second-tier journeymen, young cast-offs from bigger sides and grizzled veterans like 39-year-old ex-Newcastle defender Fabricio Coloccini, Gago set his stall out with regards to how he wanted to play.

Even when Aldosivi were struggling, they were playing an attractive, dynamic, possession-based game which won their coach plenty of admirers if not necessarily goals and points.

He continues to adhere to those ideals, albeit with slightly less emphasis on keeping the ball above all else, and having worked hard on the team's threat on the break.

The acquisition of 34-year-old Uruguayan warhorse Martin Cauteruccio has finally given them the scoring touch in front of goal that was so sorely lacking previously.

“We try to dominate the game in every stadium,” he added. “We have our game plan and we want to implement it in every match. Sometimes it pays off, other times the opponent stops us, but I think we are on the right track.”

Located out on Argentina's windswept Atlantic coast in a city which only tends to make the news in summer, when it almost seems like the entire country and certainly all of its celebrities flock to its beaches, the achievements of a team like Aldosivi tend to get overlooked by the Buenos Aires-centric media.

With Gago in the hot-seat, though, the Tiburon (Sharks) are turning heads, particularly in the vicinity of La Boca.

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Gago's old club are currently without a permanent coach following Miguel Angel Russo's departure and inevitably, given his recent run of success, his name has come up as a possible candidate.

One can expect his old team-mate Juan Roman Riquelme, then, will be watching Thursday's River clash closely as a potential early audition for future Superclasico combat at the Boca helm. Gago himself, meanwhile, appears to be in no rush to leave his current job.

“I am under contract with Aldosivi until December. Right now, I am not even thinking about [coaching Boca], it's not in my head and I'm not thinking it through,” he told ESPN back in May. “I live for the day, that's how I am. That's why I signed a one-year contract.

“We all want to move forward, but now I'm comfortable with Aldosivi. I like the idea of putting a project together, I want to leave something here.

“There is something more important than my desire: skills. I have to feel capable, with clear ideas and the confidence to see them through. Coaches have to grow and learn and that comes with time and also mistakes.”

The past eight months, beginning his career in the middle of a pandemic and financial meltdown across much of Argentine football, has certainly proved a crash course for Gago, and one which he has negotiated superbly.

Aldosivi are playing some of the best football in the country, and picking up points in the process – and if the coach can hold his own against River and continue to impress, he may well receive the call from the Bombonera sooner rather than later.