Fernandez' Argentinians lift Zaragoza
Although they say sequels rarely match the original, Victor Fernandez's second stint in charge of Real Zaragoza has got off to a very promising start.
With almost one third of the season gone, Los Manos lie fourth on 22 points courtesy of an impressive seven wins, one draw and just three defeats, and are presently on course for a UEFA Champions League berth.
Once again there is confidence in the air, with fans daring to dream of a return to the glory days of the mid-90s, when Fernandez had his first spell in charge of the club. It was then the club enjoyed their proudest moment, beating Arsenal in the final of the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup at Parc des Princes in Paris. On 10 May 1995, Zaragoza prevailed thanks to wonder goals from Juan Eduardo Esnaider and Nayim (Mohamed Ali Amar) - the latter's an outrageous lob from the right-hand touchline some 50 metres from goal to seal victory in the final minute of extra time.
This time round, the new Zaragoza supremo has decided to put his faith in a group of talented youngsters who not only have the club playing good football, but also look to have a very promising future.
Yet in spite of their encouraging early-season form, their coach is refusing to get carried away. "This Zaragoza side is in transition and very much a work in progress. Ours is a new and ambitious project, and one that we want to see endure. It should honour the principles of audacious and attacking football, while also getting results," he explained recently.
Fernandez also highlighted the exemplary team-spirit at the club, saying: "We're happy here; we work together and are growing all the time. The team know what they want and are a very tight-knit group. The players I bring off the bench are also contributing by doing what I ask of them. There's a great atmosphere about, which is good for the squad, because we try to have different options in each game with everyone doing their bit for the cause," the coach added.
Throughout his career, Fernandez has always had a preference for attack-minded formations. Fortunately for all concerned, the current Zaragoza squad has a group of players with precisely the attributes needed for such a scheme, many of whom happen to be Argentinian.
The Milito clan
Gabriel Milito's arrival at Real Zaragoza in 2003 was very much shrouded in controversy. Playing at the time for Argentina's Independiente, the defender was on the verge of completing a move to the Santiago Bernabeu when Real Madrid pulled out at the last minute, citing a potential knee problem.
Zaragoza saw things differently, and were happy to bring him to Spain. In the intervening years, the player has been a mainstay of Los Manos' defence and has played at least 34 games a season - without once suffering a knee injury.
One year ago, the curly-haired defender was thrilled to discover the club had signed his older brother Diego from Italian outfit Genoa. In his first season at La Romareda, the bustling centre forward scored 15 times to become the club's top scorer and was one of the most influential players in helping Zaragoza to runners-up spot in the 2006 Copa del Rey. His four goals in the home leg of the semi-finals against Real Madrid (6-1) and his brace in the previous round against Barcelona (4-2) afforded Diego instant hero status among the fans.
By that stage, Argentina's then coach Jose Pekerman had begun to take an interest and recalled him to the squad. Though Gabriel had been a regular in the Albiceleste defence for several years, his older brother had featured only intermittently since scoring twice on his debut against Uruguay in 2002 and managed only 10 caps during Marcelo Bielsa's four-year tenure.
Unfortunately for Diego, the competition for places in the Argentine squad for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ was just too fierce and, in spite of his rich vein of form, he was unable to showcase his skills this summer on the world stage.
This season, however, Diego has merely picked up where he left off, racking up eight goals in 11 games to join Frederic Kanoute, Ronaldinho and Ruud van Nistelrooij at the top of the La Liga's goalscoring charts.
Two new arrivals
Such is the success being enjoyed by the Argentine contingent on the banks of the River Ebro that the club decided to invest further in the country's stock.
First to arrive was Andres D'Alessandro from German side VfLWolfsburg, after the player had spent half the previous season on loan with English side Portsmouth. Although a member of the Argentina teams that won the FIFA World Youth Championship on home soil in 2001 and the Olympic Football Tournament at Athens 2004, the left-footed midfielder had struggled to reproduce in Europe the form he showed early in his career at River Plate. Nevertheless, Fernandez showed faith in him, and so far this season only creative midfielder Alberto Zapater has enjoyed more playing time.
The second arrival was that of seasoned international Pablo Aimar. Deemed surplus to requirements at Valencia, Zaragoza were more than happy to offer the gifted playmaker a place in their squad. The 27-year-old has already repaid the belief shown in him, playing 700 minutes thus far and weighing in with three goals.
The club's fans are now picking up the good vibrations emanating from the team and are themselves beginning to dream big. This year, their goal is to see the team reproduce last season's cup form over the course of their league campaign and, given Zaragoza's very impressive start, that appears a distinctly attainable target.