How to replace a living club legend, a man who delivered more success than almost any of his predecessors? That was the dilemma River Plate faced this summer after Marcelo Gallardo, the legend of the two Copa Libertadores triumphs and a hatful of trophies besides, announced that he was finally ready to bring to a close his glittering eight and a half year tenure at the Monumental and move on to pastures new.
An era to remember for every River fan, certainly, but also a potentially poisoned chalice for the poor soul chosen to succeed Gallardo in the hot seat. More so when, like ‘El Muñeco’ way back in 2014, that man had precious little experience coaching at the top level – and, indeed, had spent the best part of the last two decades away from the pressure cooker that is Argentine football.
Martín Demichelis has indeed found his return somewhat of a culture shock. The ex-Bayern Munich and Argentina defender's complaints over the lack of air conditioning in the away dressing room after his side's 2-0 victory over Lanús at the weekend left him exposed to merciless teasing around the rest of the league, while he was also put out by opposing coach Frank Kudelka's failure to say hello before kick-off. On the pitch, however, Demichelis seems to be fitting in just fine.
After six games River lie sixth in the Liga Profesional de Fútbol, just a point shy of joint-leaders Defensa y Justicia and San Lorenzo. Were it not for an inexplicable second-half collapse in their penultimate outing against lowly Arsenal, the Millonario would be currently occupying the summit too, in spite of their ongoing struggles to find a reliable formula up front – Lucas Beltrán, Miguel Borja and star summer signing Salomón Rondón have so far combined for one solitary league goal, while Matías Suárez is only now returning to contention after an injury lay-off. Coupled with the excitement generated by the newly expanded and renamed Más Monumental, that encouraging start has gone a long way to ward off concerns the post-Gallardo era would prove to be the most painful of transitions.
It helps, of course, that even after the lucrative sales of Julián Álvarez and Enzo Fernández (both times) River still possess a squad comfortably within the top five of Argentine football, at the most conservative evaluation. Demichelis' job has thus been one of fine-tuning rather than overhaul, a luxury not afforded to almost any coach upon taking over a new role. The former defender has instead focused on getting the best out of those players who perhaps flew under the radar somewhat under Gallardo and pushing them to fill any gaps in his starting line-up.
José Paradela for one had flattered to deceive at River before becoming a cornerstone of the midfield under Demichelis, and netted his second goal of the campaign on Saturday to open the scoring. Leandro González has shown signs that the erratic defending that has dogged him since his River return is finally behind him, while at the other end the hope is that Beltrán's strike against Lanús will drive him on to be the attacking force Demichelis needs as the final piece of the puzzle.
Optimism is high, then, as the league rolls and the beginning of the Libertadores group stage looms. Demichelis may still be obliged to hold a few more sweaty pre-match team talks away from home until the heat wave ravishing Argentina at the moment breaks, but for now at least he has given River no reason to regret their decision to turn to him at a crucial juncture for the club.