It is often said that a good goalkeeper is the key to any title-winning side, and Argentina's Estudiantes de la Plata are a case in point. With the club just hours away from the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final against Cruzeiro, much of their hopes rest on the shoulders of Mariano Andujar, their undisputed No1 for the past three years.
Since his arrival from Palermo in Italy in 2006, Andujar's career has blossomed. Initially a reserve keeper, he quickly earned a regular place in the starting XI and, five months later, lifted the Argentinian league championship trophy. He performed heroics for Estudiantes on their way to the Copa Sudamericana 2008 decider, and last month won his first call-up to the Argentina squad for 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers. And if seemingly being Diego Maradona's preferred shot-stopper was not impressive enough, last week Andujar set a new Libertadores record for the most minutes without conceding a goal.
"I'm pretty calm so far. You've got to enjoy these experiences as they don’t come round often," Andujar told FIFA.com. "We've reached the end of a long road which began last year with trying to qualify for the Libertadores and win the Copa Sudamericana at the same time. We had to come through the play-offs first and then got off to a bad start in the group stage. Now we're in the final, a feat every team aspires to but only two can achieve, so we will do our utmost to win."
Ship steadied in time
The bad start that Andujar mentions, with three defeats in their first six games, including a 3-0 defeat by Cruzeiro in Brazil, now seems like a long time ago. So what turned things around? "Individuals began to really perform and as a team we became more savvy in our approach to matches," he explained. "The key was that we remained a close-knit unit because when a team is united, sooner or later things start to work out right."
Andujar also believes that their success is due in large part to the arrival of coach Alejandro Sabella, under whom El Pincha remain unbeaten in the Libertadores with seven wins and two draws, including a 4-0 win over Cruzeiro in La Plata. "He quickly found a way to turn things round, and by remaining calm and passing on his ideas and playing style, helped us to rediscover our game. It now almost comes naturally to us," he said.
Andujar does not believe that the two earlier encounters between the teams will have any bearing on the final. "I don't think we can learn anything from those results because now each team has a 50-50 chance. In the group stages you can recover from a bad result – in fact we've already beaten each other and here we are in the final. But now things are different as the beaten team will come away with nothing."
For all of that, Andujar is happy to give an assessment of his opponents. "We know and respect each other. They have brilliant individuals like Kleber, Wellington Paulista and Fabio who is in a rich vein of form. Wagner can dictate the rhythm of a game, while Ramires showed his quality in the Confederations Cup. It’s a very accomplished team – that’s why they’re in the final."
So in light of this, what must Estudiantes do to win? "There's no big mystery, we have to keep our concentration and keep playing the type of football that has got us here."
One of the family
Born on 30 July 1983, at the age of 20 Andujar made his debut for Huracan, the club he has supported all his life. Despite this attachment, the keeper insists he now feels great affection for Estudiantes and their supporters fans.
"They've taken me in as one of their own and realise that, out on the pitch, the Estudiantes shirt is all that matters to me. I don't deny that this club has made me a more valued player, but what matters most is my relationship with the fans. And in that respect, I feel like a full member of the Pincha family," said the 1.94m custodian.
Andujar’s consistency, calmness under pressure and excellent positioning have led to comparisons with Alberto Poletti, who won three Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup with Estudiantes in the late 1960s. His reaction to this suggestion is swift and revealing: "That’s insane! I may have my fans, but Poletti shouldn't be compared with anyone - he’s the club’s greatest-ever keeper. Only time will tell where I rank among Estudiantes's shot-stoppers."
Andujar will return to Italian football after the Copa Libertadores having been signed by Serie A side Catania, so if Estudiantes were to win the title, the 20-year-old would miss the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2009. "I prefer not to talk about that because we haven’t won anything yet," he said. "I don’t want to think about my departure for now - when the moment arrives I’d like to be remembered for more than just a title. But winning the Copa Libertadores would be the ideal send-off, so let’s hope we do it: we’re two matches away from making history."