There exist several special relationships between coaches in Spain, but perhaps none more so than one that was rekindled this season. It all started in 1986, and as the story goes, Marcelo Bielsa knocked on the door of Mauricio Pochettino at 2am, to persuade him to sign for Newell’s Old Boys. When they meet again this weekend, it will not only be at a more suitable hour, but also under the circumstances that both are coaches.
It’s a fascinating juncture in the careers of both Bielsa and Pochettino, 24 years after the former achieved a Championship win in Argentina’s 3rd Division with Newell’s Old Boys inferiores, and an 18 year old Pochettino was in his debut season. When Bielsa took charge of the full team in 1990, he won the Apertura Division title, and in that team was Pochettino. They also won the Clausura in 1992 – significantly, just weeks after they lost out in the Copa Libertadores Final to São Paulo. The two men would meet again while with La Albiceleste, and then once more for a short period at Espanyol.
Such was the impression made upon him as a teenager, Pochettino now cites his former coach as one of his greatest influences. When he steps out on to the training field every morning with his young Espanyol team, the elements of the aggressive, vibrant football played by Newell’s are prevalent in his philosophy. Of course, the system has its own personal tweaks, but the main ideals behind it have transcended from that 1990/1992 glory.
Now, Bielsa and Pochettino are currently leading Athletic and Espanyol respectively, into exciting new eras. When the two met earlier in the season, it was the student that came out on top over his old master, with a narrow 2-1 victory at Cornellà. Pre, and post game, the pair had nothing but admiration and respect for each other, as expected. Pochettino calling Bielsa his ‘second father’, and even acknowledging in his own work that “there is a mark of Marcelo”. Bielsa meanwhile, did not forget one of his finest students, stating his “deep admiration” for the 38 year old, and declared what a “great coach he had become”.
Looking carefully, there are a few parallels existing between the two sides; a focus on youth, their styles both deeply ingrained with their coaches’ values and currently, their league positions. Both are chasing an elusive Champions League place, and recent form suggests they are strong candidates for that berth.
Espanyol are undefeated in six games, and currently sit in 5th place – this all after widespread injuries, struggles in front of goal, and inconsistency with results. Pochettino has galvanised his team to produce some spirited displays, and despite their tender years there has been a strong work ethic and desire evident. Athletic meanwhile, aside from a defeat that flattered opponents Real Madrid, have been in strong form, and especially so in the Copa Del Rey. A midweek victory over Mirandés put one foot in the final, and with Fernando Llorente looking at his imperious best once again, the side from Barcelona will have their hands full on Saturday. ‘El Rey León’ has devoured 5 of the last 6 goals they Basque side have managed.
San Mamés is entwined with the veins of the Basque country. On Saturday evening however, there will be a little bit of Rosario blood pumping through it.