Hernan Crespo has won 15 club trophies as a player and could win his first coaching title Sunday against Lanus. Photo: JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images

Exactly 20 years ago, Luis Zubeldia was a long-haired, skinny midfielder who played for Argentina’s U-20 team. Two decades later, still with the charisma of a Lynyrd Skynyrd roader, he is on the verge of his greatest triumph.

As a player, it didn’t work out the way Zubeldia would have liked. After a serious knee injury, he prematurely ended his playing career and focused on coaching.

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At the age of 28, he heads Lanus, a traditional Argentine first division club with a large fan base. Since then it has trained in Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Paraguay. Zubeldia returns to Lanus in 2018 and has the chance to lead the team to continental glory this weekend. On Saturday they will play the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the equivalent of the continental European League, where they will take on an Argentine side from Defensa y Justicia.

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Zubelda is five years younger and is at the beginning of a promising coaching career. Hernan Crespo is the first to admit that he wasn’t the biggest natural at center. But he became a world-class man through hard work, intelligence and dedication, a star in Serie A and the Argentine national team. Early indications are that he brings the same qualities to his new position. Impeccably dressed on the sidelines, he will no doubt want to wear the navy blue suit on top – and the continental title will be a feather in his cap.

Defensa y Justicia is a good place to cut your teeth. Like Lanus, they come from the south of Greater Buenos Aires, where every neighborhood seems to have a professional soccer team. But Defensa y Justicia – or Falcon, as they will be called from now on – has far less tradition.

They have only been in the first division since 2014, but they are well managed and have a clear identity on the field. Players often change when those who attract attention are sold – Crespo’s predecessor resigned in protest at player sales – but the system generally remains the same – a fullback and a team trying to get through in midfield. A defined game model makes it easier for new players to get established. Central defensive midfielder Enzo Fernandez, for example, arrived on loan from River Plate in October.

The presence of an identity and a long-term project at Defensa y Justicia has proven beneficial for several coaching careers. Jorge Almiron, who is currently playing in Spain with Elche, Ariel Holan (Universidad Catolica) and Juan Pablo Voyevoda (Union la Calera), who are doing well in Chile, and Sebastian Beccace, who has just left Racing and is linked with the Chilean team, have all had successful flights with Falcon. Crespo is next on the list.

But on Saturday, in the midday heat of Cordoba, just over 400 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, Crespo must stop Lanus’ attacks before trying to impose a passing game on his team.

Zubeldia, on the other hand, who has 12 years of coaching experience, is younger than fellow center director Jose Sand, who is 41 months younger and in his third term at Lanus. Obviously, speed is not Sand’s greatest strength, but it never has been. He’s an old-fashioned predator on the penalty kill. He lives for the goal – and with the absence of fans during the pandemic, his triumph could be heard every time he scored.

He is joined by Nico Orsini, an excellent and dangerous second striker. Experienced left-back Lautaro Acosta is absent due to suspension, adding to the burden of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Pedro De La Vega, one of the biggest talents in Argentine football. Skilled, with a brilliant shot and a physical fill, De La Vega is already on the radar of major European clubs. He also did a good job of defending on the straight. In Acosta’s absence, Zubeldia may choose to take some of the tagging duties away from him and give him more freedom to pressure Defensa y Justicia at third.

Meanwhile, Crespo will be hoping his hard-working midfielder – 20-year-old Valentin Larralde, who impressed especially in the semi-final – can make his mark on the game and serve as a replacement for striker Brian Romero.

The tactical duel should be exciting – and a young Argentine coach will add a continental title to his CV.

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