Lucho and the Rabbit hoping for happy ending

1 Dec 2015

“It’s great to be going through something like this at our age,” said Javier Saviola of his upcoming trip with River Plate to the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015.

Echoing that view with the same wide-eyed happiness was his team-mate and fellow veteran Luis Gonzalez: “There are lots of players who’ve had great careers but have never had the chance to play in a Club World Cup,” said the man they call Lucho. “It’s amazing for us, especially knowing that we won’t be playing for much longer.”

On the point of turning 34 and 35 respectively, and with 26 seasons in European football between them, River’s two old gunslingers are about to embark on an adventure they could never have imagined even ten short months ago: representing the club with whom they first came to prominence in a FIFA Club World Cup in the twilight of their brilliant careers.

“I’m loving every minute of it,” Gonzalez told a few days before he sets off for Japan 2015, while Saviola added: “I’m training hard every day to make sure my career ends on a high.”

The Argentinian veterans have come a long way in a short space of time. It was only in the middle of this year that El Conejo (The Rabbit) was spending more time warming the bench than playing at Italian club Hellas Verona, while Lucho was plying his trade in the Qatari second division. Then a very tempting offer came their way: the chance to play for River in the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, a tournament in which luck had proved elusive for them earlier in their careers.

“That’s what made me want to come back, and luckily we were able to settle the score we had and finally win the Copa,” said midfield man Gonzalez. “For me it was definitely a case of unfinished business. I’d experienced two semi-final defeats and had never won an international tournament. I don’t think the importance of winning it has sunk in yet.”

“Winning the Libertadores was a dream for me, both as a player and a fan,” added the livewire Saviola.

A date with Barcelona? The Club World Cup has been the topic of conversation at River ever since 5 August and their emphatic 3-0 defeat of Tigres at a rainswept Estadio Monumental, a victory that secured them the Copa Libertadores.

“Everyone’s desperate to be there. You can really sense it. The matches there are going to be really high on emotion and it’s a unique experience for us,” explained Saviola, who is also looking ahead to a potential final against Barcelona on 20 December: “I can picture it and yet at the same time it’s hard for me to explain. River are the club where I was born and Barça are the European club that treated me best of all. I was happier than anywhere else.”

Though both are careful to point out at every opportunity that River first of all have to negotiate a semi-final four days earlier, the possibility of meeting Barça with the title at stake looms large over our conversation.

Contemplating that tantalising prospect, Lucho said: “If we do make it, then obviously they’ll feel as if they’re the favourites. Everyone will be tipping them to win, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’ve lost games before, that it’s 11 against 11 and that no one is unbeatable.”

“If we go in there thinking that they’re geniuses, then we’re going to have a hard time,” commented Saviola. “We have to make them feel uncomfortable, not let them settle and get the confidence they need. And we also need to get it into our heads that we can play our game too.”

Analysing the dream match-up, a game both believe would be as much a psychological test as a sporting one, Gonzalez said: “I’ve never experienced one but my feeling is that even though they’re finals, the European teams feel that they’re going to end up winning. When they start out feeling that relaxed they often end up having a tougher test than they expected. For us, though, these kinds of games are like touching the sky.”

Looking back at recent history for inspiration in how to tackle Barcelona, Saviola said: “There was a big difference with Santos , but Estudiantes played a great game against them and made life very hard for them.”

Taking his turn at the microphone again, Lucho spoke of one of the greatest assets of the reigning Libertadores champions: their ability to close the opposition down fast: “They don’t like opponents pressing them and that’s something we’re good at. We got a lot of credit for that and we feel better when we play like that. We stopped playing that pressing game after winning the Copa but we’re trying to get it back.”

Though aware that European sides have won seven of the last ten Club World Cup finals, Saviola was optimistic River can hold their own, given the chance: “We’ll give as good as we get. We’re going to play with desire and intelligence. It would be fantastic to reverse the recent trend for South American teams.”

A tough assignment Though hopeful they can bring their experience to bear in Japan, both Gonzalez and Saviola know that the task awaiting them will not be easy. Having returned to River following respective absences of 11 and 14 years, neither of them has been able to hold down a first-team place in Marcelo Gallardo’s side.

“Before I left there was more space and more time to play. It’s very difficult to find that space now in Argentina,” explained Lucho, who, of the two, has enjoyed more opportunities in big games since their return. “I’m happy. I came here to do my bit,” he added. “You always want to play, but the coach knows he can count on me to play the full 90 minutes or just the five.”

Unusually for a player who has made goalscoring a habit, Saviola has yet to find the net since his return to his old stamping ground: “I still believe it was the right time for me to return, even if things aren’t working out as I would have liked. I’m trying to make sure that I’m not so anxious to score and play well that things don’t work out for me. I’m fighting so I can say that I went out in the best way possible.”

Beating Barça to lift the Club World Cup would certainly be one way of doing that, as Saviola acknowledged: “It would be a wonderful way to end my career.”

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