Crespo: ‘Making history’ by combining the best of Argentina & Brazil as boss

Sao Paulo and Palmeiras are two of Brazil’s biggest clubs. Between them, they have won five Copa Libertadores, 16 Brazilian titles and 55 Sao Paulo state championships. Between their stadiums, there is just 10km.

The derby they contest is a big one. So big, in fact, that it is known as the Choque-Rei – the ‘Clash of Kings’.

That name was bestowed upon the fixture by journalist Tomaz Mazzoni in the 1940s – and it was well deserved. Between 1942 and 1950, all nine of the Sao Paulo state championships on offer went to one of the two clubs. The Choque-Rei often decided the destination of the crown.

For much of the last 25 years, however, the derby had lost a little something – not its prestige, but some of its edge.

When Sao Paulo were at their best, Palmeiras tended to be struggling, and vice versa. In the mid-to-late-noughties, when Sao Paulo were winning the Libertadores and three consecutive Brazilian titles, Palmeiras were scrabbling around towards the bottom of the league. As Palmeiras have re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with since 2015, Sao Paulo have been stuck in the longest trophy drought in the club’s history.

Now, though, the fire under the Choque-Rei has been reignited. With the teams at their disposals, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras are both set for tilts at major silverware this season. And on Sunday night, the two faced off in a Sao Paulo state championship final for the first time since 2000.

It was a ‘Clash of Kings’ worthy of the name and, finally, Sao Paulo came out on top, bringing a nine-year wait for a trophy and 16-year wait for a state title to an end. Sao Paulo fans can sing about being ‘campeao’ once more. The man they have to thank for that? A promising Argentine manager by the name of Hernan Crespo.

Crespo’s journey to this point has been quite spectacular. A year and a half ago, he was unemployed, sacked by Buenos Aires club Banfield after leading them to a disappointing 16th-place in the Argentinian top flight. Yet in January 2020, he was given another chance, this time with relative minnows Defensa y Justicia. In the 14 months since, he and his reputation have soared.

With Defensa y Justicia, Crespo managed to develop an aesthetically pleasing, effective, Marcelo Bielsa-inspired brand of football on limited resources and led the club swashbuckling across the continent, taking home their first ever continental title, the 2020 Copa Sudamericana.

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READ: Hernan Crespo is going for glory as a manager, undeterred by a Bielsa lie

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After that success, Sao Paulo came calling, and the job was too big to turn down. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” Crespo said when he arrived. “The responsibility is because Sao Paulo are so huge.”

Not only that, the pressure was heightened because of that trophy drought that had been weighing so heavily on the club’s fans and players.

Crespo’s predecessor in the role, Fernando Diniz, had put together a fine team with Dani Alves as the star attraction and a strong supporting cast including goalkeeper Tiago Volpi, centre-back Robert Arboleda and centre-forward Brenner, who finished last year’s Brazilian league season as top scorer.

They had played some fantastic football at times under Diniz – and for a time led the way in Serie A last season. But they were too open at the back and, as the business end of the campaign approached, they did what they had done repeatedly for nearly a decade, crumbling under the weight of expectation.

Diniz was sacked and Crespo, who had recent glory on his CV seemed a good fit. He has proved just that.

Sao Paulo sold Brenner to FC Cincinnati for US$15million, but reinvested some of that money and strengthened in key areas, bringing in ex-Atletico Madrid centre-half Miranda, ex-Italy international forward Eder and Martin Benitez, a creative midfielder formerly of Independiente.

With them and the plethora of young talent that is constantly being churned out by the Sao Paulo youth academy, Crespo has moulded a unit that has kept the better elements of Diniz’s football and combined them with a new-found bite, intensity and, it seems, mental fortitude – a mixture of the best of Brazilian and Argentinian characteristics, he says.

It has not been easy. An already-packed schedule in Brazil has been made even tighter by the long pause due to the pandemic, so there were just three days between the end of last season and the beginning of this. At times, they have even had to play Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday to catch up.

Still, Crespo has managed to get Sao Paulo drilled in a 3-5-2 formation that has allowed wing-backs Reinaldo and Dani Alves to fully indulge their attacking urges and has given young midfielders and attackers like Rodrigo Nestor and Gabriel Sara freedom to roam.

As Brazil’s 1970 striker Tostao pointed out in his column in Folha de S.Paulo recently: “Marcelo Bielsa once said he did not understand why Brazil did not play with three centre-backs given they had the two best attacking full-backs in the world, Daniel Alves and Marcelo.” Though Luiz Felipe Scolari, Dunga and Tite did not take Bielsa’s advice on board, Crespo was clearly listening.

As a result of that change and a few other tweaks – such as the introduction of another Bielsa favourite, man-to-man marking – Crespo led Sao Paulo to eight victories and just one defeat in their 12 group games of the state championship. They battered Santos, Inter de Limeira and Sao Caetano by four-goal margins and beat Palmeiras at their Allianz Parque stadium, which was inaugurated in 2014, for the very first time.

In the quarter-finals, Sao Paulo beat Ferroviaria 4-2, then in the semis, they wiped the floor with Mirassol, who had beaten them in the 2020 edition. Martin Benitez put in a virtuoso display and Sao Paulo ran out 4-0 victors.

Crespo had been criticised for playing a reserve team in the Libertadores in the lead up to that semi, with the Libertadores generally deemed more worthy of respect. But his decision was justified and he did the same again as Sao Paulo played Racing of Argentina in the Libertadores last Tuesday before the two legs of the final on Thursday and Sunday.

Sao Paulo drew 0-0 at Allianz Parque on Thursday and won at their own Morumbi stadium on Sunday afternoon. It was not a vintage performance in either leg, but Sao Paulo battled and strived, making endless recovery runs and late bursts into the box. Eventually, their efforts paid off as young midfielder Luan and substitute Luciano scored in the second half of the second leg.

It was a trophy that Sao Paulo desperately needed and after the game, former Sao Paulo manager and current director of football Muricy Ramalho was in tears on television.

“[The title] makes people trust in the work [that’s being done],” he said. “We have been very close since the beginning. Crespo is accessible, he listens, which is really important… but he was nervous too. He asked me, ‘What is it like to be a champion with this team?’ I said, ‘Crespo, you will feel it soon, you’re going to make history with this club.'”

The question now is can Sao Paulo carry the momentum forwards? The Brazilian national league season follows the state championship, and despite losing to Racing on Tuesday, Sao Paulo are already through to the Libertadores round of 16.

If Crespo can build on this early success, he will cement his status as Sao Paulo’s most popular boss since Muricy himself. Yet the competition will be tough. In the league, they will have to overcome defending champions Flamengo. In the Libertadores, Palmeiras are looking to defend the crown they won in January this year.

Before the season is out, then, there may well be another ‘Clash of Kings’ to decide the destination of a crown. If it comes, Crespo will have Sao Paulo readied.

By Joshua Law

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