Some football marriages are a match made in heaven. Maradona and Boca Juniors, Hugo Sanchez and Pumas, Johan Cruyff and Barcelona and the Maldini family and AC Milan are just some of the examples of a seemingly predestined alliance between coach and player and the club closest to their heart.
A similarly passionate relationship has just been rekindled in Mexico, where, following an eight-year absence, Ricardo La Volpe has returned to his beloved Atlas, the side he steered to prominence at the turn of the millennium. And since settling back into the hotseat, La Volpe has been working his old magic once more.
"We've got the man we want," said Atlas chairman Fernando Acosta in announcing La Volpe's appointment at the end of January, causing much jubilation among Rojinegro fans, and not without good reason. In his previous stint with the Guadalajara side, the Argentinian tactician took Atlas from perennial relegation candidates to championship contenders in four short years.
In doing so the man with the big moustache introduced a more adventurous style of play, gave several of the club's home-grown youngsters a chance to impress and put together one of the most talented squads in the club's history. Leading the pack was Rafael Marquez, ably assisted by the likes of Mexico internationals Miguel Zepeda, Juan Pablo Rodriguez and Daniel Osorno. Although La Volpe's side never won the title, they did reach two league play-off semi-finals and a final and enjoyed a sensational run in the 2000 Copa Libertadores de America.
When they parted ways the two never quite enjoyed the same level of success. La Volpe had a fine season with Toluca before leaving for a controversial spell with the national team, leading them to success at the 2003 CONCACAF Gold Cup and a place at Germany 2006, where, despite some promising performances, he failed to negotiate the traditional stumbling block of the last 16. Luckless stints at Boca Juniors, Velez Sarsfield and Monterrey followed as the Argentinian's star slowly began to fade.
Atlas slipped back to their inconsistent ways after the departure of their messiah, going through no fewer than 13 different coaches in the intervening years. Although Sergio Bueno led them to a league semi-final, they were largely unable to recapture the status they enjoyed under La Volpe.
The miracle man
After replacing previous incumbent Dario Franco, La Volpe was quick to dampen expectations. "We're going to have to work with what we've got," he warned, mindful of his young team's shortcomings, which were exposed in his first two games back in charge as Los Rojinegros struggled to recover from their poor start to the season.
It was not long before the moustachioed one started to turn things around, however. After a hard-fought win over Atlante on Matchday 5, Atlas earned a surprise point against America at the Estadio Azteca, the prelude to a home win over mighty Pumas, a draw in Puebla and another three points against Indios Juarez.
That unbeaten run was put to the ultimate test in the Guadalajara derby against Chivas, strong favourites going into the game. Atlas' task was made even harder by the dismissal of goalkeeper Francisco Canales midway through the first half. Yet again, however, La Volpe worked the oracle. After shoring up the defence and sending on untested youngster Alejandro Gallardo to replace Canales between the posts, the Argentinian looked on with satisfaction as Bruno Marioni secured a historic win with a last-minute penalty.
Typically, La Volpe refused to bask in the glory. "This team needs to work harder if we're going to achieve what the fans want," he declared a few days later. "The people at Atlas don't want words, they want the championship. Just because you want the title doesn't mean to say you're going to win it. The Man Upstairs has enough to worry about without people asking him for the championship. With all the problems there are in the world, there's not much point in asking."
Having lost none of his character over the years, La Volpe is clearly determined to prove the critics wrong. "I didn't build this team and a lot of people thought I was going to mess up. I know a lot, though. I'm 57 and the people who really love me are the fans, for what happened before. I'm getting results and that's shutting a lot of mouths."
Whatever else happens, La Volpe's second coming at Atlas is sure to be anything but uneventful.