Since Marcelo Gallardo took over the top job at River Plate, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Barcelona four different coaches have come and gone. On Thursday, Ronald Koeman became the latest man to receive his marching orders at Camp Nou, significantly lasting barely two months following the exit of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain; and just like his predecessors, the Dutchman has seen ‘El Muñeco’ put forward as a possible replacement.
The links are no accident. During his seven and a half years at the helm of the Monumental – even in Europe's top five leagues, only Burnley's Sean Dyche, fellow Argentine, Atlético Madrid boss Diego Simeone, and Christian Streich of Freiburg in the Bundesliga boast longer tenures – Gallardo has established himself as one of the world's most admired tacticians. Not just for his more than healthy trophy haul over that time, which includes two Copas Libertadores, but also for the consistently attacking and attractive football his River sides have played, and perhaps most notably for his ability to shape the Millonario in his own image despite a cycle of departures and rebuilds unimaginable in top European clubs, who have a far greater ability to keep together a winning team and strengthen under-performing ones.
Despite the inevitable latest reports, Gallardo is unlikely to get the job this time, either. Indeed, Barça look set to take a leaf out of River's own book in appointing club legend Xavi, a relative novice on the bench just as Gallardo was when appointed to succeed Ramón Díaz after just a short spell in charge of Nacional, and to no little scepticism on the part of the Núñez faithful.
Nor is it immediately clear whether he would take up the post even if offered. The trainer continues to reap spectacular results at River year after year, and though his contract is up at the end of 2021 it appears that he will continue for as long as he believes he can still deliver success. “Gallardo belongs to River, he's not going to leave,” chanted the Monumental crowd on Monday; and their hero returned the courtesy, telling reporters: “I acknowledge and am eternally grateful for the affection the fans give me. It is nothing new and very hard to pay back. I'm already thinking about the next game, that's the way it will be until the end of the championship.”
That particular match marked one more giant step in Gallardo's bid to correct the one anomaly of his sparkling reign. River's 3-0 destruction of Argentinos Juniors, coupled with dropped points for nearest Liga Profesional challengers Talleres and Boca Juniors, leaves the Millo nine points clear at the top of the table with just seven games remaining in the season. The crown is not quite secure yet, but it is within touching distance; and another victory on Sunday away to Estudiantes would bring them just one step closer to the first league win of their coach's tenure, having twice finished in a close second place but never quite managed to go the full distance.
Whether that prospective triumph would mark mission complete for Gallardo or merely spur him on for at least another season will become clear as 2021 nears its end. For now it seems that the team has found its groove, playing in the manner the coach desires during this current run of eight consecutive wins and showcasing the talents of the likes of Julián Álvarez, Agustín Palavecino, Héctor Martínez and other young stars who have come to the fore during the construction of his latest all-conquering side. There may be a Muñeco on the bench for some time yet at the Monumental: cause to celebrate for River, commiserate for their adversaries and overall good news for everyone with a vested interest in seeing Argentine football at its finest.