Guillermo Barros Schelotto leads Lanús into Libertadores tie against Santos Laguna

Former Columbus Crew star Guillermo Barros Schelotto will guide his Lanús side into the first leg of a Copa Libertadores round of 16 tie against Santos Laguna on Wednesday night.

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BUENOS AIRES

In Argentinian football, traditions were laid early and habits are hard to break. Lanús has been one of the most consistent teams in the Argentinian game, with a league title and four second-place finishes in the past seven years, yet it’s still difficult to avoid the temptation of patronizing the club as it prepares to face Santos Laguna in the last 16 of the Copa Libertadores on Wednesday.

To an extent, every game in the Libertadores feels like a testing of limits for Lanús. Not only is it not one of the five traditional grandes of Argentinian football, it’s not even one of the next five biggest teams – not if such things are judged on history and supporter base. Lanús itself is a nondescript suburb, a small manufacturing town that has been subsumed into the greater mass of Buenos Aires. For years, its only significance to Argentina’s football history came from its notoriety as the birthplace of Diego Maradona – although he grew up in the Villa Fiorita, a nearby shanty.

For most of its history, Lanús bobbed between the top and second flights before finally, in 2007, they won the league for the first – and so far only – time. Sensible financial management – a huge advantage in a world in which the vast majority of clubs are struggling with debt – has kept the club near the top of the Argentinian standings, but this is still only Lanús’s fifth appearance for the Libertadores. The club has reached the final 16 twice before, but it has never progressed beyond this stage after losing 3-2 on aggregate to Atlas in 2008, and, heartbreakingly, on penalties to Vasco da Gama two years ago despite scoring twice in the last half hour of the second leg to force a 3-3 tie.

Making the last eight would still mark a major step for a club with attendances hovering around 10,000 for league games, not just as its best performance in the competition, but also in further establishing the club as a major name in South America. It’s one thing to win the Sudamericana, as Lanús did last year, but progress in the Libertadores means far more.

LIBERTADORES ENTERS KNOCKOUT STAGE

Much of the credit for this side’s progress must go to the coach, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and to the faith the displayed in him. Two weeks ago, he and his twin brother, Gustavo, signed contract extensions through the end of 2015, an eternity in the short-term world of Argentinian football. The new contracts served as another indication of the stability and clarity of thinking that has allowed Lanús to become a major player despite its comparative lack of resources.

As a player, Barros Schelotto always understood the geometry of the game. His movement and positioning were excellent. When he enjoyed the most fruitful spell of his career at Boca under Carlos Bianchi, his understanding with Martín Palermo and Juan Roman Riquelme was critical. He may have been the least glamorous of the three, but his role was no less crucial. His performances for Columbus Crew, where he claimed MLS MVP honors and won the league title in 2008, reinforced his talent and showed how he had been able to adjust his game as age sapped at his limbs. Still, the ease with which he has come to management has taken many by surprise.

Barros Schelotto’s preferred mode is a fluid 4-3-3 with Santiago Silva as a rambunctious leader of the line, Leandro Somoza sitting deep and controlling play from the back of the midfield and Diego Gonzalez shuttling forward on the right. Silva and Somoza, both 33 and both, like Schelotto, former Boca players, will miss the game against Santos Laguna, though, through suspension.

Lanús went to Chile to face O’Higgins in the final game of the group phase needing a point to make it through. Although it secured a tetchy 0-0 draw, progress came at a cost. Silva, having been booked for protesting against a controversial penalty against him, was then sent off after celebrating Agustin Marchesin’s save at the referee. He will miss both legs for his reaction.

Carlos Izquierdoz and Somoza, meanwhile, picked up their third yellow cards of the campaign and will be out for the home leg. Add in the absence of Paolo Goltz to a torn hamstring and the fact that Maximiliano Velázquez is doubtful with a twisted ankle, and this begins to look a severely weakened side, particularly down the spine, where it has been so strong of late.

It seems likely Matías Martínez and Facundo Monteseirín, the usual pairing for the reserve side, will operate at centre-back, with Jorge Ortiz and Victor Ayala alongside Gonzalez in midfield and Ismael Blanco as the central striker. It’s fair to say that Blanco, at 31, has filled out a little since the days when it seemed a good idea to celebrate goals by whipping a mask from his sock and drawing a Z in the air in the manner of Zorro. He does, though, at least offer something approaching the physicality of Silva and so is, near enough, a like-for-like replacement.

Still, the absentees make the first leg in particular a hugely difficult task for Lanús. Barros Schelotto has imbued a ferocious team spirit, but determination and togetherness may not be enough to continue the noticeable progress.