x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Estudiantes book their flight to Abu Dhabi

Juan Sebastian Veron proves crucial to Estudiantes as the veteran midfielder leads the Argentine club to the Copa Libertadores title.

Estudiantes players celebrate with the Copa Libertadores after beating Cruzeiro 2-1 on aggregate.
Estudiantes players celebrate with the Copa Libertadores after beating Cruzeiro 2-1 on aggregate.

BELO HORIZONTE // When Estudiantes captain Juan Sebastian Veron collected the Copa Libertadores and held the trophy aloft, he almost toppled over backwards. It was not only the size of the cup that affected his balance. It was also the emotion of the occasion. This was the crowning moment of the veteran midfielder's career, the ultimate justification for turning his back on European football and returning to Argentina. Estudiantes of La Plata are not only the first club Veron played for, they are also the club of his legendary father, Juan Ramon, who led them to three consecutive Libertadores titles four decades ago. Now, in the 50th year of the competition, the son has played a similar role in conquest number four, and the victory means the club will be competing in December's Fifa Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. "I would have swapped all my medals, everything I won in Europe, everything I have ever won until this day, just to win this trophy," Veron said after the victory over Brazil's Cruzeiro. After last week's first leg in Argentina finished goalless, Cruzeiro were clear favourites. But Veron junior orchestrated the play from midfield, and helped set up both goals as Estudiantes came from behind to win the return match in Belo Horizonte 2-1. "Veron is the most predominant player in the history of Estudiantes," club coach and former player Alejandro Sabella said after the match. He may have exaggerated slightly, and was also surely not 100 per cent accurate when he said that "we have to build a monument to all the players. They are the explanation for this triumph". It is a generous compliment, but he does not give himself enough credit. Once an attacking midfielder with Sheffield United and Leeds, Sabella was for years assistant coach to Daniel Passarella. In his mid 50s, he is in the top job for the first time, and has brought about a remarkable turnaround. He took over after Estudiantes had lost two of their first three matches in the campaign and were struggling to qualify for the knockout phase. The club's subsequent record is extraordinary. After Sabella took over, Estudiantes went 11 games unbeaten on their way to the title, conceding just two goals in the process. In the nature of contemporary club football in South America, even in their moment of triumph the team are being pulled apart. Mariano Andujar, the goalkeeper who has just become first choice for Argentina, is to join Catania in Italy. Centre forward Mauro Boselli, whose winning goal in the final was his eighth of the campaign, is also expected to head for Serie A. There are not too many stars in the team's supporting cast. Gaston Fernandez, scorer of the equaliser in the final, is a support striker with a neat touch, but something of a lightweight. There are an interesting pair of wide midfielders. At 23, Enzo Perez is the youngest member of a mature side and offers thrust down the right. On the other flank Leandro Benitez is not the quickest, but his sweet left foot can be very useful from set pieces. Collectively, these players will be a threat in Abu Dhabi - and it is even possible that the much travelled striker Jose Luis Calderon, 39 in October, will postpone retirement to get in on the action. The most important thing, though, is that Juan Sebastian Veron will be playing in Abu Dhabi. Forty-one years ago, with the aid of a decisive goal from Veron senior, Estudiantes overcame Manchester United to win the Intercontinental Cup, the Club World Cup of its day. After emulating his father in the Libertadores, Veron junior will now aim to get past Barcelona and five other world confederation champions to do the same thing on a global scale. tvickery@thenational.ae