River plays for Gallardo’s legacy in Copa Libertadores final

<p>
              Argentina's River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo walks at the military airport Grupo Aereo 8 tarmac, in Lima, Peru, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. The team will play Brazil's Flamengo on Saturday's Copa Libertadores final. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
            </p>

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Marcelo Gallardo has lifted so many trophies with River Plate that fans are making him a bronze statue.

Next month’s unveiling will be a party no matter what, but the celebration would be even bigger if the coach wins his third Copa Libertadores with the Argentine team on Saturday.

At age 43, Gallardo is River’s most successful coach with 10 titles, including two South American crowns. He is already a club hero regardless of what happens in Saturday’s final against Brazilian team Flamengo at the Monumental Universitário stadium in Lima.

That is why artist Mercedes Savall is creating a seven-meter tall statue of the coach, using bronze melted down from thousands of keys that River fans are donating. The image she used as reference was one of Gallardo raising the 2018 Copa Libertadores trophy after a 3-1 win in Madrid against archrivals Boca Juniors.

“Argentina is ridden by crisis, if you see someone happy on the streets that will be because of River,” Savall said.

Just five years ago, things looked a lot different for Gallardo.

In 2014 Gallardo had been out of work for two years after his first coaching experience at Uruguay’s Nacional, where he won the 2012 national championship. During those days away from the bench he travelled to Europe to get familiar with new coaching methods.

River, meanwhile, had won the 2014 Argentine championship under Ramón Díaz, the club’s most successful coach until Gallardo arrived.

The former River academy product then ushered in a new era of dominance, turning River into the best South American team of recent years.

“Today soccer is this: knowing how to play, how to interpret, how to be physically fit. That is the foundation for a good team,” Gallardo said in a recent interview with South American soccer body CONMEBOL’s website.

Gallardo is not dogmatic about tactics. He might use five defenders or four. What he will never do is give his rivals the initiative to attack. Few teams have managed to dominate possession against his River, and Flamengo’s powerful midfield will find it hard to do that in Lima.

Gallardo’s contract runs until December 2021. But no one is sure whether he will be sitting on River’s bench next year, as he starts being linked to European clubs.

River has a plan to keep him, but Saturday’s final against Flamengo could be one of his last chapters with the Argentine team.

“It is hard to make a statue of a person that is alive. People can change. But Marcelo deserves it,” said River executive Carlos Grillo, who conceived the project. “I hope it works so Marcelo doesn’t even leave River.”