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Diego Imposta

[FM18] Montevideo Killed Win Ratio Star

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309.

I had been to the 40 000 all-seater Campéon del Siglo before. At the time I was hopeful of managing the then 40-year old legend who scored the first goal at this new stadium in 2016: Diego Forlan. He’d returned from a stint in India to play for Fénix, a struggling side that had just been promoted against all odds. After finishing his career there, in hindsight he should have retired after he came back over to Montevideo for the first time. Returning to his boyhood club after a four-year post-Europe tour in Brazil and Japan, he scored the goals to sign them off in their old stadium and get them going in their new one. It was a fairy tale 12 months, winning the Campeonato Uruguayo halfway through the new transition back to the calendar year league format. If I could find out where he was, maybe he could be tempted to work as an assistant at the third most successful finalists in Copa Libertadores history:

Club Atlético Peñarol. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics’ South American Club of the Century had won more than 50 domestic titles and kept pace with Argentinean monsters River Plate and Boca Juniors in continental competition, although Independiente were a modern-day colossus with three Copa Libertadores wins in a row. Their rivalry with Nacional was immense; if one didn’t win the title the other would. This was a huge job. Ecuadorean side Liga de Quito are in town, the only side to have dropped points against Peñarol, and were going home with nothing more than participation money. Since that opening fixture Manyas had lost every game in the competition, and back to back defeats against River hardly helped their heavyweight claims. Paraguayan side Libertad currently topped the group by two points and only needed to avoid a loss in Argentina – this was not a campaign that should have been thrown away. The Uruguayan side had only scored two goals and remarkably both came in the first minute in Ecuador and Paraguay before throwing the game away.

A cool shower descended over the city. At least 35 000 people had turned up to see this game and if anyone was stupid enough to not take their seats before kick-off they would be rushing in after that roar from the crowd. From the off the ball was worked wide left of the 4-2-3-1 DM Wide formation and Saracchi beat his man on the wing and whipped in a deep cross which was headed up in the air by the Liga de Quito defence. Right winger Sirino didn’t let two thoughts enter his head and hit the sweetest volley into the near post to make it 1-0 inside 15 seconds! Lightning had struck a third time in the first minute for Peñarol. The defensive box employed by the Ecuadoreans had a long night on.

The visitors did well to control the ball thereafter but an incisive move in and around the box got the hosts 2-0 to the good, Sirino again providing the finish. Number ten Elizari had played a lovely square ball with his back to goal to assist the strike. After quarter of an hour the game is surely settled now.

A knee injury to Saracchi saw play subdued and he didn’t reappear for the second half. Sirino took a knock soon after and the visitors made two quick changes to try and get back in the game. The home side’s defence had little to do and it looked like complacency was setting in. Liga de Quito were very frustrated but the manager showed no tactical guile is trying to alter the game, just throwing on his third substitute to freshen up the central column once more. Peñarol were quick to win the ball with possession lost and that tenacity saw left wing substitute Rodríguez drive at the opposition and cross into the middle. Again the ‘keeper punched clear but not far enough. Sirino… hat-trick! A crashing hit across the goalkeeper for a marvellous trio of goals, Elizari again the master of the one-touch assist.

He was taken off for a well-deserved ovation soon after. Rodríguez still wanted his name in lights, if only as a subheading, and came inside to strike low and hard into the bottom corner with a quarter of an hour left. It had been a terrific performance from the attacking midfielders but caretaker Jorge Gonçalves, a Peñarol veteran of 20 years as player and staff, had recognised the lack of mobility with the striker and replaced him five minutes previous. The game petered out. The defensive players had been so tough all night long and rightly celebrated together while the attackers congratulated each other. The tactic created these divisions but it was fantastic to see these men turn a corner as one.

The Valencia Football Review called to clarify a few things about my departure, completely unaware of where I was, and it felt good to talk away from home. I wouldn’t have to look anyone in the eye in response to what they read in the newspapers. Peñarol would keep me waiting until the Intermedio was a fortnight away before offering an interview. It had been an expensive five days at short notice in the hotel. New president Carlos Ádrian Noble had formally invited me by letter but on the day the director Ricardo Peluffo was the only one at the interview. There was a managing director who could not make it as well as another, less senior director who was now away on holiday. It seemed like this was at least plausible, despite the yarns I have been spun by suits in the past. He wasn’t a man to get on the wrong side of; immediately he spoke of his ‘considerable reservations’ about the time I spent at my previous clubs. I rode the storm and stuck my neck out, asking about the data analysis facilities and if the training ground was at the level required to dominate Uruguayan football. I had to impress this guy after all. He eventually let the business mask slip and looked to be warming to me, or maybe he had just forgotten that conversations with the manager didn’t have to be a terse post-defeat war.

I begged him to take a chance on me. I explained how my ground-breaking approach last season had led to a win ratio of 67% and it would never be bettered at Mestalla. I cheekily told him I’d also won every cup I’ve ever entered, and we shared a laugh. Have I convinced him?

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310.

Nearly a week had gone by but still no appointment. It wasn’t long until the Intermedio started. Just as my doubts and familiarity with the hotel staff were rising at uncomfortable rates, I got a call to my room. It was reception. They had a call waiting for me. It was the club President Carlos Adrián Noble.

He was magnificent; the tone of his voice, the confidence with which he spoke. This was a man who talked with all the swagger of someone who had won consecutive elections. Listen, Diego. There are staff at this club who are untouchable. That will not change as long as I am here. These men do more for this club than I can. But there are men here who do nothing and men who are close to Fernando Curutchet – it is up to you to figure out what crossover there is. Some of these men are also fond of the manager before him, Diego Aguirre, too. It is one big family here - but all families have factions.

He was talking as if I had the job and I got swept up in it instantly. He talked about the staff for what seemed like a couple of minutes when in reality it was over half an hour. There were columns to the club. Director of Football Gonzalo de los Santos ran the show, his 45 caps for the national team and playing experience out east in Spain with Valencia, Mallorca, and Hércules meant I had my confidant.

Then there were the brothers Gonçalves – Assistant Manager Jorge and Chief Scout Nestor. The sons of the legendary Tito, captain of the golden era Peñarol side of the 1960’s, had great pedigree in the eyes of the fans and were the very fabric of the club. There were many more who had been here for a decade or two, some of which had been maligned to reserve or youth football having fallen out of favour. Noble asked me to reintegrate them, offer an olive branch. The structure of the club meant I could ignore job titles and use designated reserve staff with the first or youth teams. Many contracts were up at the end of the month and I’d have to assess these men wisely. Some of these were even on month-to-month deals and many staff were on part-time contracts, including my entire scouting department. In short, there was much (too much?) to be done here from an operational perspective.

There were three promotions that had to happen. Three men who had done their time with a dignity but had come from more senior positions anyway. One was talented fitness coach, Daniel Ipata, who had come in only to help as understudy to our long-standing but young Head Physio Fabricio Vidal. A big status in football was reflected with his salary. 15 years working in Mexico, including a year-long experience with their national team, had the Montevideo native as our second highest earner. This is only behind my Assistant Manager, and I was asked to ensure he went full-time and extended a deal due to expire at the end of the month. Most of the staff were 50 or older so he would fit in nicely. I’d manage his workload as we had another young stalwart, too: motivational coach Sebastián Roquero.

José Perdomo was pushing 60 and had a quarter century of caps for the national team, a history that was wasted as a youth coach. Having been the Reserves Manager ten years ago he would now get a reinstatement for the open position. What he lacked in man management, assistant Milton Boyaro’s abilities would cover. Between them they liked to think outside of the box tactically and had storied histories as a manager and fitness coach respectively before joining Peñarol. It was another man that needed his contract sorting, with Perdomo getting by on a month-to-month deal. José Enrique de los Santos was in a similar position and needed to go full-time too. Predominantly an assistant as a staff member in his career, he too would be promoted from youth coach to Under 19s Assistant Manager. Both men had served around a decade as a player for this great club and now would be given senior roles among the backroom team. Ramiro Martínez Bello had a lifetime as a youth manager at a host of clubs and would be the perfect foil, as Noble wished for us to get the best of their determination.

With Head of Youth Development Luis Duarte, the most recent addition to the staff a couple of years ago, and his lengthy experience in all divisions of Uruguayan football I would have five coaches at my disposal for each team. The rest of the senior staff were made up of Peñarol veteran goalkeeper and Goalkeeping Coach Óscar Ferro, my assistant’s best friend, and Álvaro Regueira, former manager of a series of first and youth teams including our own. This really was a family that people kept coming back to. I wanted so much to be a part of it. The negotiations began. I wanted parity of my Valencia contract, having saved Noble the cost of compensation, but the sticking point was length of the deal.

I drove a hard bargain, dropping my wage demands by a thousand Euros as I was better off with the taxes in their pesos anyway. I would comfortably be the highest paid manager in the country. Wow!

I got the two years I asked for but not the three I wanted. Work would begin in earnest on the data analysis facilities which would be ready in two weeks. That was more than enough time to get that positioned manned, and the new training facilities would be ready around this time next year. The enormous outlay of $30,000,000 would be worth it. Whether I was still here was immaterial to me.

I was told to come in on Saturday morning and prepare the squad for their next fixture. With both of the youth teams not playing for a couple of months, I could focus on the seven Intermedio games in the same period. It was a fantastic time to come in. I wouldn’t sleep tonight, my head spinning from the conversation with the President. I had to hit the ground running and haul Peñarol to the top of this mini-tournament. Every point counted and there was a chance to play in the Supercopa against the league winners if we came out on top, not to mention securing a Copa Sudamericana berth and this club desperately needs continental competition.

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311.

The budget, for now, was enormous. $100 million – twice the value of my best player. We had to act fast to redistribute funds before they were eaten up. For too long the scouting budget was focussed on Uruguay and to branch out into neighbouring countries, the budget will have to increase tenfold.

My remit was to sign high profile and young players for the first team. Only the very best will do. Our rivals Nacional would not be able to compete if we made the move now. Our scouting team, headed up by Nestor, wasn’t much to write home about. Three journeymen, not long retired, were under his watch and of them only one big name: Fabián Estoyanoff. The former Peñarol man had flattered to deceive on the international stage but a career made out of loan deals made him the ideal man for a loan-brokering survey of the Intermedio. Similarly, Luis Oyarbide had been released by his last three clubs in successive seasons and would know what to look for at the bottom of the barrel. Who had a hunger, a desire to prove their worth against all odds at our famous club? A third man, Juan Manuel Ortíz, sat somewhere in between and would be charged with finding the right transfer target as well.

Nestor would take up reportage of our next opposition, but I wanted him to fill his week with a scout report from the list of a hundred or more players the club were already keeping tabs on. The healthy wage budget was extended even further to give us space to accommodate three more stars. My plan encompassed three transfer windows, but with two players already leaving at the end of next month I would have to find out if they needed replacement now. I wanted a marquee signing to add if I had the chance to do so but it would have to be a player that would herald a new era. Reallocating funds to new areas saw the initial budget depleted by two thirds, so I simply couldn’t pick and choose who joined me. By far the most monied attraction was Dani Parejo of Valencia. Director of Football De los Santos had, in passing, mentioned to President Noble about the potential availability of the cultured midfielder. At 33 he was now either exactly what we needed on the ball or just what we didn’t off it.

A further chat with Noble after a short break moved to the topic of formations. Jorge had played his 4-2-3-1 DM Wide to perfection in that 4-0 demolition of Ecuador’s Liga de Quito, proving that former manager Curutchet’s influence with the same formation was scant. Incidentally, the highly influential centre-back Ramón Arias was off to join them soon. He won the battle to play alongside our captain Fabricio Formiliano at the heart of defence this season, both having signed together six years ago. In reserve we had vice-captain Yeferson Quintana, a home-grown talent predating their arrival by a few years, who sadly never got the recognition with the youth setup at national level like his older rivals.  

By and large the staff, from their Under-19s through to the first team, were rooted in the traditional 4-3-1-2 Narrow. This was my chance to recover the core values of the club so the tactical shift would be kept quiet for as long as possible, as it would eventually malign a large committee of wingers.

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312.

The squad was going to need to be kept as consistent as possible during the Intermedio, as there is a World Cup imminent. Three of our players had already featured in the first warm-up game earlier in the week, thankfully only as substitutes, and will be involved again in the second this weekend. Our goalkeeper Gastón Guruceaga was first reserve in the national team and had been at Peñarol for his whole career, serving behind Formiliano and one of Arias or Quintana for the last six or seven years. Our professional backup goalkeeper Leandro Galpi could get his first game of the season, although a plea for game time had already been made in writing by reserve team man Joaquín Silva, who could not get a game at any level thanks to the seniority of Galpi in turning out for the reserves each week.

At full-back there was our first headache. Having played second fiddle for the same time period was right-back Alex Silva, and he had finally had enough and served notice on his contract period without even finding a club to go to next month. Club icon Guillermo Varela, long returned from his move to Manchester United, had been injured for three quarters of the last 12 months and had only returned to training this week after injuring his hip three months ago. We would have to eke every last match out of Silva and Arias before they left, as Quintana could only make the bench last time out following a month in the treatment room with a damaged foot. With no natural left-back in the squad, we had to follow either Jorge’s plans and play third-choice defensive midfielder Fabián Píriz in his secondary role or do as Curutchet did and pull Marcelo Saracchi back from left wing. He was still nursing the hit that took him off at half time against the Ecuadoreans, so right now I didn’t want to upset too much.

Defensive midfield picked itself, with bruiser Ángel Rodríguez aside a metronomic Diego Poyet, with Píriz engaged at left back and fairly recent utility signing Ignacio González unable to nail a meaningful run in the side. The three attacking stars of the last game kept their places: hat-trick hero Sirino wide right, Gáston Rodríguez wide left, and number ten Fernando Elizari. Up front, Cristian Palacios comes in for Octavio Rivero to give a column of fan favourites from front to back with Poyet and Formiliano.

The reasoning was that although Sirino and Saracchi were two of the four most recent transfers into the first-team a year and 18 months ago respectively, the other two – midfield’s González and striker Rivero – were the only two to not impress last time out. As backup I would bring the remaining four over-22 players: third-choice goalkeeper J. Silva, and a triumvirate of versatile attacking players Luis Urruti and Facundo Waller, both fairly fresh from stints in Portugal, and the homegrown Diego Rossi.

Tactically, Jorge had played with a trequartista up front with the ball being played into an aggressive in Elizari at every opportunity. Silva would attack the right flank while Rodríguez readily covered him. This translated loosely into the 4-3-1-2 if the left striker played a deeper role and the right midfielder looked to occupy the half-space to provide the right back with support. I didn’t like it too much but it is all about continuity now, and title-winning tweaks have to be subtle…

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313.

During a formal meeting with the staff, we discussed the hierarchy of set-piece takers and those who were unhappy with their lack of playing time under Curutchet. J. Silva, Gónzalez, and Urruti all asked the player liaison officer Maximiliano González to raise their cases with me and the statistics backed them up. All would given an opportunity in the coming weeks, although quite where the latter would feature was still open for debate. Urruti’s playing time had been wiped out in the last couple of years after earning the right to play following a couple of loan spells but winger competition was fierce. He was into the prime of his life so he will get the chance to impress me but I was told he did himself no favours by predictably always choosing to go right in duels. He had to prove whether he could make an effective mark on the game as a right winger, left inside forward, or even as a striker to stay here.

After sending Urriti to Paços Ferreira in Portugal a few years back, the club then took back a younger Uruguayan last summer in Facundo Waller from the same side. He had impressed predominantly on the left wing or behind the striker but again was one-dimensional and sought out ineffective areas of the pitch. It was a long time since he won a stack of U20 caps for the national team and, like Urruti, a man who needs to find his niche and quickly. González was a trickier nut to crack; was he enough of a player to hold down a role? He was said to be very technical but maddeningly inconsistent. He was another in his physical prime but struggled for games since joining the club a few years ago. He had won the title with Danubio and the Pan American games with the national team nearly a decade ago alongside Formiliano so he had a friend in the captain. It was up to me to keep them winning games.

Diego Rossi was Peñarol born and bred. His relative youth was a prospect, but he simply had to play football and would have to find his role. Ostensibly a striker, he had filled in at right wing this season but he could easily occupy any position behind his preference up front. His diminutive stature, which was similar to Palacios, meant he could be a tricky customer for defences. Right wing was Sirino’s to lose as the tiny winger was capable of so much with the ball at his feet. It’s feast or famine with the physicality of Uruguayan players so most of our play would be on the deck. On the left G. Rodríguez provided height coming inside and we could also double up that aerial ability by playing Rivero in the lone striker position. None of them came close to the trio of ‘keepers or burly centre back Quintana.

Whilst going over Jorge’s detailed reports on the squad I saw a newspaper on the desk showing our interest in Colombian left-back Héctor Quiñónes of clear league winners Atlético Nacional. Is there any truth in this? De los Santos said he knew of him, his name doing the rounds in his circles, but he could find out more. It says here that they are playing tomorrow – you could fly out to Medellin and watch him in action! We looked up his history there and then. Two long spells in Portugal at various clubs and would you believe it: he had been at Paços Ferreira with Urruti and then Waller! What are the chances! The Director of Football had to go now. There was a league quarter-final second leg on.

We were short of a natural player there so when pressed for alternatives De los Santos said he could come up with a few more names. I wanted an essential signing first and foremost, those high-profile names could wait. This squad had been together so long that the right man had to come in. We were international scouters now.

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314.

I decided to join De los Santos on the trip to Colombia. Liga de Quito were playing Once Caldas away in the second leg and, should Quiñónes’ side progress to the final, he’d watch the next three games.

The club were at least trying to blood in some youth to their over-23 first team. There were two men involved and a host of other players with one or two appearances. Víctor Manuel Narváez, however, had featured in half the league games at right back while Varela was injured or when Silva’s recovery time from the Copa Libertadores was needed. Still playing for the Under-20s national side, he would be looking to benefit from Silva’s departure next month. If he showed the right attitude, he could be a star in the making. Bright young left winger Gonzalo Lares was in the same Uruguay national youth squad and could finally win his first cap after inclusion in a few benches. The call was off the back of a handful of first team appearances. In the reserves, defensive midfield prospect Ernesto Laxalt was off soon, the 10-time youth-cap destroyer a lamentable loss but we had Poyet and Rodríguez there.

Two players that were coming back to us at the end of the month were attacking midfielder Facundo Torres, another to feature heavily in the national side youth team, and striker Brian Rodríguez. Both were 22 and had been away on loan for a year. Their Campeonato Uruguayo experience would be so important so I decided to fast-track them to the first team squad on their return. There were so few players that had more than a couple of appearances with the first team in the last couple of seasons.

The youth intake at Peñarol was also due soon and it made for difficult decisions. Nicolás Fernández was said to be an elegant number ten who increasingly fell out of favour with Curutchet. I wanted a corral of youth players training with the first team so he was brought back in from the cold. Another two youth players were on the transfer list by request! There was just no culture of making the step up to the first team here. He also advised that there were a couple of players in the wrong squad so I took his input as genuine. The goalkeepers José Piriz and Gabriel Guerrero needed to swap teams to better reflect their wages and seniority. Guerrero had a few games in the Under-20s but had worked closely with Guruceaga and should be in the reserve team accordingly. Piriz had played the majority of games in the youth side and was on very similar wages to those already there and, crucially, didn’t meet the minimum wage as he was yet to turn 18. José Cardoso Gonzales was the only player in that team who had been given a squad number, so he would be moved to the reserves so as not to move the goal posts on his career. This meant a real shortage of any defenders in the side so I hoped that Luis Duarte could work some magic in that area with the youth intake. There was a young winger we talked about, Carlos Blanco, because he was born in Spain. To give some precocious talents a go on the wing we would move him into the number ten position as he was already familiar with that too.

To engineer players towards the current first team tactic, a few concessions had to be made. All our defenders in the reserves were big, manly stoppers and José Cardoso Gonzales was the odd one out. His mixed abilities meant he could be retrained at right back, offering an outlet going forward, but it was going to be a long process. Similarly, we had a number of strikers on the books and it would be beneficial to extend two men’s experience on the flanks. We had three players that had come from non-league and I would continue to bed them in slowly. Ruben Herrera was a solid target man, and probably the only one we had, so we would get him to transpose that art onto the left wing with his favoured foot and mirror the first team’s height options there. Pablo Martínez on the other side was said to be the total opposite, and with his tiny frame adept at playing in the hole and up top. Smaller still was Ismael Etcheverría, a little poacher taken on at the same time as the other two. They would largely start from the bench as there was plenty of seniority ahead of them. The other player that he wanted to learn a new role was goal-scorer extraordinaire Alejandro Martínez. He’d apparently been banging them in for fun in the reserves for the last few years but still hadn’t got his league debut. I’d want to make him a rounded player and a stint on the right wing would do him good. This meant the striker role could be shared by the tiny poacher understudy and a goal-a-game youth prospect Diego Nievas. De los Santos raved about his start to the calendar year and couldn’t wait to see how he can terrorise defences in the reserve league. At left wing Manuel Favaro simply wasn’t droppable, but it was for the wrong reasons. De los Santos was pained to admit that the player held influence above his station and hoped he would be usurped by the wide target man coming through. Our youth sides were both five or six points off top spot so any players already not available for loan were locked in.

Before we got off the plane, my Director of Football wanted to touch on another thing during a deep learning flight. The two players that had requested to leave may need a show of intent from me. The most important man to keep hold of is attacking midfielder Andrés Fernández. He is a natural leader and would be a fine choice as reserve captain, having faced adversity in moving reserve sides from a Segunda División one. The other, giant left back Marcelo Acuña, needs that added responsibility with his new competition at the back and both men might just rescind their requests before the reserves play again in a couple of months. They were wise words indeed. First team auxiliary left back Piriz is currently on the transfer list and if Quiñónes’ looked the business, I wasn’t going to take him off it. In a few weeks I had a senior squad of 25 and I didn’t want more than that.

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315.

At Medellin, De los Santos got word of Noble arranging contract extensions to staff already. I had no problem with this and it reminded me to do the same with my players on Monday morning. After an hours drive, the first action of the game saw Quiño, as he was named on his shirt, take a poor corner from Once Caldas and find his winger ahead of him with a decent ball, only to see him floored from behind. Red card! Fifteen minutes and the tie was eminently winnable for the away side, but against all odds the home side took the lead two minutes later with a great ball over the top and hit catching Atlético Nacional cold. Quiño tried in vain to come across and cover where his centre backs faltered. The league leaders were not at the races and struggled in the driving rain. They were out of the final on away goals unless they bucked their ideas up and used their extra man advantage. On the hour, I sighed as our man was hauled off along with his opposite flank. We made our way from our seats to the back of the stands but as we had not seen anything special in Colombia, we left the stadium too.

It wasn’t a completely wasted journey as we were able to talk Valencia on the way back, and how we would respond to any negative press regarding my time there. My first time with the media was via conference call at the airport. It went fine, no real questions, but it was going be a 24-hour job here.

Back at base the next morning, we met all the players and staff together. I was keen to ensure all our heads didn’t drop if we didn’t get off to a winning start. We had the ability to change our fortunes so don’t let the past get into your head. De los Santos here will be renegotiation contracts with those of you who are one or six months away so don’t fret about the future, either. I will get Peñarol back on top of the league – you just need to have faith in each other. Everyone gets a fresh start now. Earn it.

Our first game was away at Cerro and Nestor reminded everyone that they would let us play so don’t get carried away. Lining up in a 4-2-2-2 DM, they looked to keep their full backs deep and hit the ball in to the target man if they couldn’t play out through the deep playmaker. Canobbio on the right had scored against us last time out so Piriz will have to keep an eye on him. He’ll sit deeper to stay ready.

Nestor mentioned that Poyet liked to come deep to get the ball, so we’d ask him to support the play ahead of him so as not to get too close to his defenders. Rodríguez would be asked to chase the ball ahead of him to close down that playmaker in good time, and my third change would be to get some decent movement in the forward line by asking Palacios to stand on the shoulder of the last man. He and Rivero showed nothing of interest with a free role in the final third and attacking was left to the wingers, which they did well, but it wasn’t enough. As the week went on, all of the contracts offered were either accepted or, in the case of unhappy players, rejected. This was no surprise. I’m happy to change their minds over the coming weeks. I was glad that a number of the players had complained early about training workloads – I wanted to keep everyone as happy as possible as I’d need them all at some point over the coming seven fixtures of Intermedio. This was a proving ground between the Opening and Closing stages after all. The press had built up that we would be taking 9,000 fans over to Cerro – fully half their capacity which was expected to sell out.

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316.

The pre-match conference was at the tailored, leisurely press room at Palacio Peñarol in downtown Montevideo. The stadium, Campéon del Siglo, was out of town and was an event for everyone to go to - players and fans alike. All of the talk was about players signing new deals and committing to the future of the club and I was delighted that there were so few hiccups. It would have been a disaster to lose Quintana six months after Arias, while backup ‘keeper Gelpi and striker Palacios were assets in every sense of the word. The accounts were run so well that I had to ensure we weren’t caught by contracts being run down; there was always money to be made. Curutchet was complimentary when asked about Sirino, perhaps in turn about my praise for the groundwork he had put in over the years during my first press conference. It was good to know that, for now, he was still supporting Peñarol.

The top half of the Opening Stage was characterised by teams that had lost three or fewer games. If we were lucky to be included in that, Cerro were there on merit. Characteristically tight in all of their games, we would go there expecting to be the first side to beat them in their own back yard in 2022.

Opening Stage table-toppers Defensor Sporting were held 2-2 by a 94th minute equaliser at home to the lower-mid table Rampla Juniors in the early kick-off. It was the springboard we needed, as we’re only eight points behind them in the overall table. The 17:00 kick-off in the open-air stadium felt like a dream, just as the sun was beginning to set. Jorge took the team talk and told them to carry on as they had finished the last game under him. The players reacted well, and we took to the warm night.

In the tunnel I was stopped by one of the friendly faces at the press room, a correspondent from the Uruguayan Football Daily. With his microphone in my face he asked if Palacios could end his drought today. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to pile any more pressure on him. The man harangued for an answer but I wouldn’t comment any further. He quickly moved on. This was tense. I was asked to sum up my feelings about my first game. What a terrible time to ask! I pushed ahead and snarled that we were always the favourites for any game. Palacios kicked us off a minute later and the ball is in to Poyet. We build from the back. This is really happening. The players were more prepared than I was. The occasion was getting to me. I had to think critically. We were dominating possession early.

Jorge was right, we were too careful with the ball. We had to take more risks to get into that back six if we had any chance of scoring. We had to try and lose the ball more, tease them out. About a third through the game Jorge was telling the men to concentrate the ball into the box, on the deck when they were there, and in the air when they weren’t. We needed to make use of all the weapons we’d brought to this fight: G. Rodríguez’s height and Palacios’ movement over short distances. We broke from a deep Cerro attack. Elizari drove through the middle of the park with the ball. He looked up to see Palacios peeling away and hit a ball over the top to him. Headed clear. Headed back in by Elizari. Palacios, back to goal, takes it on his chest. He turns. Reverse pass to the onrushing Elizari. He’s now in, skips wide of the last defender… goal! He struck low and hard to the ‘keepers near post and went over to our fans in the corner. We had done it! Thirty something minutes on the clock and we finally broke Cerro’s lines. It was a magnificent finish. We tried to keep playing this way until the half came to a close. Once there, Jorge wanted to strike home how important it was for the fans today. Let’s do this for them. The game would be reset, and Cerro would come looking for us, so let’s stick to a plan.

Canobbio needed closing down as his influence was growing. Other than that it was as you were for my charges. The defence had been imperious with aerial balls so far, so Cerro would have to find the means of causing us trouble. Almighty boos came from the stands and the home side kicked off, and it was followed by a deafening sarcastic cheer as the ball was frightfully punted up field. These fans were incredible! Ten minutes later they had changed to 4-3-1-2 Narrow with Canobbio up front. He would have to be marked tight while I thought about who, if anyone, to change up. A wide free-kick on the hour was swung in and first-time headed into the same net for 1-1, towering centre-forward Vargas having it all too easy. It was a needless goal and immediately Canobbio was back in his wing position as they reverted formation, ready to bore us to tears again. I made an exacting double visit to the fourth official – Rivero was on up front for his height and Rodríguez was withdrawn for a more aggressive midfield from deep in González. Poyet was winning so many second balls we couldn’t give that up. Cerro responded in kind by subbing the substitute up front, correcting their mistake double substitution at the break. A massive chance went begging as González slid G. Rodríguez through the middle and Rivero could not send his shot past the goalkeeper. From the corner we just couldn’t get enough space for a decent shot. Sirino had been unusually quiet and I looked to the bench. Urruti is up, the third man promised game time. He had fifteen minutes to affect the game. The loss of corner duties forced G. Rodríguez into action at the same corner of the ground, again annexed by our fans.

Formiliano! Headed into the roof of the net! The captain sent the fans into a dancing mob on the far side of the ground. Cerro didn’t let us settle, moving through formations and eventually breaking on a corner, three on two. Sigales let the ball drop and went for the Hollywood volley… crossbar! They soon broke again, and Vargas was able to slide in at the far post and score at the very death. 2-2.

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317.

Of course, Jorge read the riot act. It was the perfect tonic. We were not good enough in that second half and they knew it. Danubio were the only team to win in Group A, defeating our next opponent Liverpool de Montevideo 2-0 away, which was the only saving grace from a frustrating evening. We had kinks to work out, naturally, but how? Piriz would be the first casualty after being at fault for an avoidable equaliser. The transfer speculation had obviously affected his head, out of position or not.

González looked excellent when he came on and would replace Sirino wide right, Rodríguez was too important to drop out. Narváez would come in at left back – a position he had not played this year – and would have to take the opportunity in front of his own fans. It had been months since he played in consecutive games and would provide a more attacking role to try and establish himself. If Laxalt would get a goodbye tour seat on the bench at Sirino’s expense, Piriz will have to drop out as well.

With a double-header for the next two weeks we would look to have a session on ball control to see us through in midweek. For now we would take each game as it comes, and it doesn’t come better than at Campeón del Siglo. A night game to start the home campaign should bring on the fireworks.

I wanted to build on our good play from set-pieces on the day of the game. Nestor warned of even more defensive play from the opposition this time around and with the same formation to boot. If we could keep a lid on tricky advanced striker Ignacio Ramírez we should be able to concentrate on breaking down the door. There were still question marks over J. Silva in goal but he had to get fitter.

We had to control the game and get bodies moving, anticipating a robust life-sucking siege mentality from the away side. Silva would rein it in on the right as we looked to be more supportive in attack.

Good news came in the form of all three want-away men withdrawing their transfer requests after a chat with their agents. Things were settling down at Peñarol and contracts were being given out. It’s all agents think about. Still, it was pleasing to think that De los Santos was right about offering out an extra responsibility for the reserve players. Bad news filtered in that only 25,000 tickets had sold out.

An underwhelming reaction to Jorge’s team talk seemed to set the tone for the half full stadium on a breezy cool night. Rodríguez picked up a booking inside two minutes. Something wasn’t right. Sloppy defending from the free-kick saw Briñón lose his man and sweep across J. Silva for 0-1 before we had even settled. Silva was as fault and stepped up to take our first free-kick two minutes later. Goal! He struck it without back-lift into the middle of the goal to dumbfound their ‘keeper and the fans let rip.

We had to work the ball into the box early this time, having so much of the ball was a problem for us and I needed to watch very carefully. González was looking very tidy on the wing but Rodríguez was suffering from a knock to the knee. He would come off, Laxalt getting a warm reception. Palacios got hold of the next free-kick, our confidence in set-pieces soaring, and struck the crossbar and post The ever-alert Poyet smashed it home across goal to give us the lead! The stewards struggled to hold the fans back. This was fervent support. Liverpool were struggling to get out of their own half and with a few minutes remaining we hurled high balls back at them. The second half began with olés from this wonderful crowd and it spurred Elizari on to strike from distance to double our lead. Laxalt had sent on the assist and it was time to think about the weekend fixture, wrap a few players in cotton wool.

Poyet’s legs were going so González dropped back and resumed the playmaker’s role. There was no need for the attacking approach of last time out. Urriti was given another chance to shine with some more minutes. Before we could make the change, their ’keeper spilled a cross from G. Rodríguez and Palacios thanked his lucky stars that he could break his drought so easily. 4-1 to Manyas! There was surely room for young attacker Rossi to replace Elizari in the number ten position. Urriti then passed well with Silva down the right, exchanged the ball and fed Palacios for five! This was a performance of the highest order. Liverpool were sinking without trace! Rossi plans were shelved with our main man looking for a hat-trick, so on came Waller to boost his fitness. He had a knack of coming deep to get the ball so instead of left wing he got number ten and was asked to find the space and make this happen for Palacios. After an hour Liverpool finally found their quality, supplying Ramírez with balls over the top. They kept the pressure up for a few minutes so something had to change. We did not have the personnel or the will to give away our second formation. Defensive midfielder Briñón was furious to come off ten minutes from time and I could see why. We saw the game out as best as we could, legs so tired now, and once the whistle went for full time the confidence was back, players in both defence and attack celebrating together. This side had not gone three games without defeat in three months and we were back. Almost. A trip to Defensor Sporting was next and they had got the win they deserved away at Danubio. Everyone could beat everyone in this league. With the equaliser so late in their first game, our next opponents should be on top with two wins from two. I needed to freshen up the squad once more and the first target was in goal. J. Silva looked uncomfortable so we recalled Gelpi for his first start of the year. I needed a goalkeeper I could trust as they would line up in a very aggressive 4-2-4 Wide. Nicolas Dibble scored twice last time out, and needed no motivation to score against his former club next time out. They had a driven 18-year-old speed merchant up top to look out for, too. We were only allocated 600 tickets for their 9,000 capacity stadium…

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318.

Formiliano was left out on the advice of the medical team, vice-captain Quintana stepping in. For all of the original squad of 18 to get game time in the first fortnight, Rossi would need to play. Sirino is recalled to the bench to take on that left-wing cover this time, with Waller moving to central cover as he had been shifted there in the last fixture anyway. It was all very fluid but Rossi was now our go to man with Rivero dropping out completely. There was no recall for Piriz as the transfer rumbles go on due to Poyet being adept at playing centre back and, to an extent, Laxalt too. I wanted initially to limit changes between each squad to three but the games would be coming so thick and fast for the next couple of weeks. That being said, after such a victory it was important to play confident players.

We had suffered in the opening rivalry at Cerro despite dwarfing them but Defensor Sporting were a more competitive opponent. Nerves were frayed on both sides and we would face a partisan crowd.

We had the perfect referee for a gusty afternoon derby: card-happy Óscar Rojas. He had dished out nine yellows in his first game of the Intermedio and seven reds in ten games this year! It was a great atmosphere in the stadium, our fans desperate to make themselves heard. We had to silence theirs.

Defensor Sporting were the first to attack, breaking from a long flat throw from Arias. They raced to the wing looking for that four on four and just as we recovered, Rojas blew his whistle. Penalty. Five minutes in and Dibble was floored by González, an extra man tracking back that we just didn’t need.

The former Peñarol man dusted himself off and knew he would take it. He tucked it high into the net and stood arms aloft in front our fans in the corner, making their blood boil. For five minutes Rojas’ decision frustrated our players. We had to keep cool, avoid unnecessary challenges. Ten more and I was kicking water bottles as we took another knock in defensive midfield, Poyet this time. Laxalt had not even been out for a warm-up yet but there was no way I was moving González nearer his area so we went with two ball-winning midfielders. He picked up a booking anyway. We looked toothless in attack and panicked in defence. This was a desperately fragile collective and Jorge had to work hard.

Two more bookings apiece before the half meant that he had to side the players. We had been very unlucky on the face of it. Now it was time to show them what we are made of. Straight away, tough guy González was fouling someone so I hauled him off in disgrace. Sirino would get to reprise a right wing role after all. With still no impetus, Rossi was given a free role up front for half an hour to show me what he could do. A bruised ankle fifteen minutes later just about summed up our afternoon. It was a joke. In the very last minute a strong gust vaulted a deep clearance over our back line and the spritely substitute Falconis did the rest. The home crowd went wild. A goal at the beginning and end of the game making up for a lack of excitement. The noise from the stands made me shiver. He could have done it again in the fourth minute of added time were it not for Gelpi learning his lesson, being tall till the bitter end. An exhausted side traipsed off the pitch while the other had just found second wind. Jorge wasn’t angry. He simply told them that we expect better of them. We had gone there to counter-attack and, on the day, it hadn’t suited us. That’s the management’s fault but responsibility lies in your ability to handle the occasion. Do any of you have what it takes to destroy a rival in their stadium?

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319.

With the sickening defeat hard to shake, we set about working on transfer targets. With around half of the requested reports coming through I still didn’t have enough of an idea over the quality we had to aim for. Fénix, our next opponent, wanted to extend striker Rodríguez’s loan deal for another year but there was no way I would accept that; I had to see him play. It would be interesting to see if their defensive 4-2-2-2 DM would see them roll over just as Liverpool de Montevideo had. Rodríguez was allowed to play against us and would surely be given a warm welcome at Campéon del Siglo. Until he got near our penalty area, anyway. Formiliano, Elizari, and Palacios had made the spine of the first of the team of the week awards. Jorge felt that Palacios was particularly deserving of praise but I had to disagree. We had lost a game, Jorge, and counter attacking had cost us dear. We will control the ball against Fénix and get the best out of our men. It was a message with subtext; I wouldn’t accept all of his tactical suggestions any more – I had learned my lesson. Diego Rossi was passed fit last minute so we called the squad into the dressing room to read out the team sheet. González was the fall guy. He dropped out altogether with Sirino reinstated to the first team. Formiliano replaced the unappealing Quintana at the back but in truth many of the squad were still very tired. This midweek fixture is too soon but with Rivero back on the bench again we would had a fit and firing powerhouse to send on.

I was told to be weary of their threat from set-pieces but I was having none of it. We would again go with movement training before the game, having looked so profligate in the final third last time out. The players were briefly told in no uncertain terms what was expected of them here. We sent them out with no time to dwell on it and they strode from the corner of the ground, heads held high now.

Oviedo kicked us off, his pace as the aggressor ahead of the target man sure to cause us problems in the first half at least. Rodríguez was left in the stands, the Fénix manager not trusting a secret agent.

After matching our opponent’s width early doors, Sirino took full advantage in playing Palacios down the right channel. The striker held it up, returned the ball, and looked on as the ball was squared to Rodríguez marauding from central midfield. Goal! First time under the goalkeeper from just inside an overcrowded box. It was the perfect start. The team took instruction to pull in a bit more and make a difficult life for the away side. Fénix could not weather the storm that followed, and Palacios struck a vicious free-kick into the middle of the goal again for 2-0 on 20 minutes. It was becoming trademark!

The little magician was reborn, turning and firing off the outside of the post a few minutes later. We were back! On the half hour Poyet stepped up to curl a wonderful effort into the goal and the game was over. Or so I thought. Within a minute of their fourth kick-off of the evening Fénix had pulled an unlikely goal back with their first shot, Oviedo finding space at the far post from a long diagonal ball.

Elizari and Rodríguez switched off in the last few minutes of the half and both got booked. They had to stay on, though, as G. Rodríguez was exhausted and ineffectual out on the left for the second time running. Waller would get a proper run-out on his favoured left flank. After ten minutes of poor play, Elizari was finally hooked. The mountain Rivero was on to cause havoc and provide an outlet for the two wingers, while Rossi waited patiently to come on. To combat the new attacking midfielder’s odd mobility Silva was asked to overlap down the right and soon he was well-involved. Fénix cleared one of his crosses and it was worked back to Rivero. First-time he found Waller in loads of space out left. One touch, one hit, one goal. It was a superb reaction from the man who normally avoids using that weaker right foot. We let the game settle before sending Rossi out to warm up. Palacios was marked out of the game now so we needed something fresh as we searched for more goals. The free role did not quite work last time out, so he was told to chase things down and play as a normal number nine.

It just didn’t happen for him, the away side too camped around their own penalty area to give him a sniff of goal. We eased off naturally as the physical toll drained the players. Yet we had done all the hard work and come away with an important victory in both halves. Waller and Urriti had done well in their last games and would almost certainly come in for G. Rodríguez and Sirino, who struggled to get into their last couple of games. The Intermedio was a proving ground, after all. After celebrating the victory I stayed behind with our new data analyst to better understand how the game was won.

First thing on Thursday morning Varela was in my office. He wanted to leave amid interest from over in Europe and it was a hammer blow that I was not expecting. Silva was off at the end of the month and young Narváez was just getting to grips with left flank. I just couldn’t understand it; he’s Peñarol through and through and had already tried and failed over there. I didn’t want to lose him. But what would it take for him to stay? The answer was damning: silverware. He didn’t think I could deliver it.

It was a thinly veiled dig at the money on offer from lower table La Liga sides, who dwarfed Peñarol financially. He wanted one last big contract. Perhaps his agent had engineered this before I had even arrived. The World Cup had turned his head. I had no choice but to admit defeat and promise him I’d accept an offer from Las Palmas. Now all they had to do was convince the Spanish side to cough up.

He had a dismal tournament and it was clear to everyone at home that he only cared about money. Uruguay limped out of their easy enough group in last place…

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320.

The Uruguayan World Cup effort was a joke. Ranked 12th in the world following a second-place finish in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, the long wait to the summer derailed any cohesion they had built up. A dismal one win in their next five games put the frighteners on the squad and, despite their improved performance to beat Senegal in the tournament opener, a malaise set in against Iran. With Portugal to play in the group closer they simply had to at least draw. An early penalty set the tone and before long Uruguay were out. Needing to beat Portugal to qualify for the next round, they surrendered too easily after Suárez put them in front in the first five minutes and were thrashed. Guruceaga was also in search of pastures new and my goalkeeper wanted to move to Huracan in Argentina. Again, it was not as clear cut as it first seemed: he wanted the chance to play continental football. Quite what the offer behind it was escaped me but it was beginning to feel like I had come onboard a listing ship. If I had managed to transform the players on deck, something had changed in those already overboard.

With the three World Cup players in pretty jaded shape, I decided against including them in the side to face Rampla Juniors. Another defensive side to negotiate and it would be like another home game thanks to an allocation of 48,000 tickets, dwarfing the home side’s by about 20 to one. Arias would sit out with suspension, meaning I could finally play vice-captain Quintana alongside his captain. The return of Píriz to the side after three games out should lift his spirits. Silva and Rodríguez are just too tired to play when the day finally came around so Laxalt was in, with Narváez moving to right back.

The two at the back were more comfortable together as a rough and ready defensive unit and were told not to hang on to the ball back there. It was another local derby much in the same manner for our opener at Cerro but the partisan crowd should hopefully see us over the line with a lot of zest.

It was probably the last we had seen of Silva before he departed and definitely the same for Arias. If only I had been able to come in earlier I might have changed all these players minds. Still, I had two new faces to come back from loan next week and it really was looking like Defensor Sporting would not drop any more points so G. Rodríguez and Sirino were kept in the starting eleven for now, with a patient Urriti and Waller breathing down their necks. We looked keen and confident in the warm-up.

Wearing yellow shorts to avoid a kit clash with the home side’s black shorts and socks, we looked so much more visible and full of energy compared to midweek. A scintillating ball from Elizari out right found Palacios queuing up at the far post and he volleyed in unmarked, G. Rodríguez just behind him and desperate to get involved. The driving runs from our number ten were something else. Our slick short passing was causing endless problems for the home side and Palacios squandered a Sirino pass through the lines soon after. Balls into space were demanded to expose Rampla Juniors even further and Elizari spotted Sirino inside his full back and he slalomed through and finished brilliantly for 2-0.

As we tried to slow things down, Elizari took a hit on the ankle. He was done. On came Rivero which meant we’d ask G. Rodríguez to attack inside his marker too. As the half petered out our collective concentration went and we conceded for the fifth game in a row, a deep cross evading our men at the back easily and unnecessarily. After the restart Palacios bundled in a deflected shot to restore a decent lead. It was a good time to remove G. Rodríguez who still hadn’t quite found his form of the first couple of games in my reign, Waller with another chance to impress. It was only fair to bring on Urruti at the same time for a much-improved Sirino. A wonderful Formiliano header from a Waller corner made it four with 20 minutes to go. We were rampant with our goal difference and as each passing game went by that defeat stung even more. A cheeky out-ball by Narváez down the right to Urruti saw it cut across goal for Palacios to complete his hat-trick. It really was top-level stuff from a team so redundant in the final days of Curutchet. We were playing some very fluid football now and going for the kill in the final ten minutes. Rampla Juniors had to be very, very good to keep the score as it was. The fans were ecstatic at the final whistle. We were climbing the overall table but Defensor Sporting had now gone six points clear, Nacional surrendering their lead with a poor challenge in the other group. It bode well for the Closing Stage. If we could keep hold of our best players, that is. No sooner had Formiliano scored another important header had the captain asked to leave. Betis were the poachers this time, aiming down the sights at our prized captain. He was irreplaceable. I couldn’t just let him leave like the others. I told him to knuckle down and let us cross that bridge when we get to it – I need my captain focussed right now. We had two huge games left to play in the Intermedio.

With the day about to spill into the next, I was tired and called De los Santos. He had to try again for the club’s sake to get Formiliano to sign a new deal. The same went for Varela and Guruceaga. It was our last shot at continuity. They all only had a year left anyway and their sale value was diminishing.

Urruti, González, and Silva should be targeted again, too. All of those players would be gone before the next match if they didn’t sign. Píriz had earned a place in Team of the Week so I would think long and hard about letting him go. Our central midfield trio and Palacios made it, too. Things were good here – if only they could see it! An impromptu meeting with Néstor was held the next day – had he found the players we were looking for? It could be a very different looking squad in a month’s time. The thought filled me with dread.

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321.

A chastening morning of deadline day saw Urruti, González, and Silva leave. De los Santos did all he could to convince them to stay but the damage was done by Curutchet. It was a real shame for the right winger as I had a place for Urruti but he just couldn’t wait. González would always be blamed for conceding that penalty at Defensor Sporting should it cost us a place in the final but nevertheless he wasn’t going to displace my solid central midfield. At least with Silva he had already made it clear before I arrived that he was off but with no contract signed at another club he’d have a long month.

We would prepare for Danubio at home as best we could. It began by rebuffing a derisory offer for our goalkeeper Guruceaga – who I had yet to play – and he would again sit out while the speculation went on. One area that we had to show strength in rivalry. De los Santos tipped me off that Nacional were after a former player I had asked him to evaluate. Nahltan Nández was available on a free and could play in a number of positions down the right and in the middle. He had made his way through the ranks as a teenager and transferred to Boca for $85million – more than double the value of any of our players now. We simply couldn’t afford to let Nacional get their man. He was a leader and an energetic sort and it was fair to say that five years across the water hadn’t worked out for him. They were not the force they once were and had only picked up a Supercopa winners medal in Argentina.

I made the preliminary contact with the agent, who also did business with a number of our current players. With the mid-morning administration of registering those returning loan players Torres and B. Rodríguez we had to give out shirt numbers. It was great to meet them. Young attacking midfield player Fernández also needed his number so as to express my interest in playing him. The pre-match press conference began soon after and most of the talk was regarding Arias’ move to Liga de Quito.

Guruceaga was furious that I had broken a promise to sell him to Huracan. There was no way that an appalling offer would be accepted. His agent, the one I am trying to cajole into letting us speak with Nández, must have been dreaming. The player had no idea that we had been low-balled. It was just as much of a shock to him and it was us. He wanted to know how much it would take. I called De los Santos there and then. The player’s contract was worth $9million but his market value was more like $35million. We had rejected half that amount outright. $35million? Guruceaga seemed to like that. I wondered whether he just wanted to feel important. I told him straight that for the captain, Varela, and himself there was a pay rise on the table if they stayed. Soon after, the agent was on the phone.

He had interestingly side-stepped the issue and spoke of his demands for Nández. They were low. So low that I thought it was a trap to justify the move to Nacional. I made sure I offered round numbers after tax so make it easy for them to understand, on the condition that we didn’t play with bonuses.

Rossi would fill Urruti’s shoes on the right as he looked like a fish out of water as a striker. Passing is his strong point so I hoped he could find the same quality over long range. On the left, Saracchi was the only man in the World Cup squad to not seek a move so he was recalled in place of G. Rodríguez.

Young left winger Lares had been brilliant in training and fully deserved his first call-up under me. It meant Waller would be used as central cover but his eye for attacking made me think I could end up trying him up front. Fernández had also been very good and would give us cover at number ten. We made the decision to return Rodríguez to central midfield to accommodate all of these attackers on the bench. It was still a case of minimal changes despite the fatigue. The two loan players were not quite fit enough after their exploits and would join Guruceaga, Varela, and G. Rodríguez in the stand.

Out of nowhere an offer from Girona came in for Varela. I spoke with the president, pleading for an increase in transfer funds if this goes through. There was some $400,000,000 in the bank according to De los Santos but that was the club’s future not its present. He agreed that more money would be an ideal way to get more high profile players but warned that Nández at right back wasn’t enough to sate the fans. An increase to a third of any transfer revenue was granted and I would have to make it count. We owed Manchester United 15% and had probably paid Varela $60million in five years, so at the very least I wanted Girona to give us that back plus the next 12 months of his contract. It was too hard to negotiate as I really didn’t know how much money they had. Our main clause, on top of their many stipulations, was to share any future profit equally. I wanted this transfer to pay for itself over and over. Within two rounds of back and forth, the deal was struck. We got our $60million back with a single payment and Girona’s money men left with their tail between their legs. He was really going.

With the fans yet to see him this Intermedio I didn’t want sentiment to get in the way. G. Rodríguez was taken instead as another option up front. Maybe when I came in we had just caught him in good form and nothing more as the last few games had been very plain indeed. He was close to Palacios in terms of positioning so there was a chance that there was a striker sniffing out goals. His height was a problem; he was too tall to be inconspicuous. Even still, if we could get him on the ball that should be a formidable sight to see him bearing down on goal. I would have to reinvent a lot of the players and find out their best positions, as it felt far too soon to be casting aside even more bodies.

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322.

Two outstanding strikes from Rodríguez from successive corners in the first couple of minutes set the tone. Both were palmed over but not comfortably. Danubio’s 3-1-3-1-2 DM formation had not reckoned for the space we would get down the wings with Saracchi in the side. His excellent cross into the box from deep eventually found Formiliano who lashed the free ball across goal on seven minutes. What a response from our captain! We pushed for another, operating a little more direct and eventually released Sirino to finish on 20 minutes, Rodríguez having the game of his life with an incisive ball through. He popped up ten minutes later to send an arrow into the bottom corner and we were cruising. Danubio crumbled, giving the ball away on their left flank to Sirino and before we knew it Palacios had clipped it into the goal for 4-0, ten minutes before the half was out. We had to calm down! So much energy was being expended when the result was already sealed. We would go top by virtue of Defensor Sporting not playing yet but this was no time to get carried away. There is still the matter of keeping a clean sheet at stake. With Elizari hardly involved or needed, Fernández was given a half to ease himself into the team. He made a valiant effort in the middle but the desire of Poyet to get ahead of him in a rare counter attack showed the youngster what was required – an amazing run and header from the deeper playmaker made it five on the hour and we were cruising!

G. Rodríguez was thrown on up front for the final fifteen and Saracchi asked to give everything and get to the byline, Píriz holding deeper behind him. The change unsettled us. A corner was swung in and again we switched off, allowing the opposition to score from close range. What were we doing back there? I couldn’t allow another goal and demanded we chase them down earlier. So much for watching our fitness levels. Lares was given a quick run-out to finish the game but in reality he had no chance of making an impact. Jorge read the riot act in the dressing room, accusing the players of complacency. We kept them at the stadium to hear of the Defensor Sporting result later in the day.

Another win. They just wouldn’t let up! They did show signs of fatigue being pegged back to 2-2 by the home side but a winner ten minutes from time all but confirmed their place in the Final. We had now set a record for the most goals scored in the Intermedio, passing Nacional’s record by five with a game to go. How we would finish second in this half of the tournament with that kind of statistic is just beyond me right now. The Defensor Sporting game seems like a blur when I think of how many of our goals have been before and after. That one fateful day where we failed to score may have just torpedoed my first objective. It was time to look at spending that money and make a real assault on the Closing Stage. If we fall short now, I would have to stomach the possibility of buying rival players.

For the final game I would give a starts to Rossi on the right, Waller in the middle, and Rivero up top. Could they cut it?

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323.

It was another home game away from Campeón del Siglo – 40,000 Peñarol tickets sold at the home of Sud América. Curutchet picked a good time to talk up Palacios, too, as we would keep him safely on the bench and away from any horror tackles ahead of the Closing Stage. Naturally all the talk was about Varela leaving but we had to keep doing what we were doing and we would be fine. The door was always open for his return. In terms of incomings, De los Santos said that there was a fever over in Argentina about River striker Nahuel Peñalba. He was dubbed the next Ramón Díaz, who just as it happens was now the new Barcelona manager. There was major interest in securing his services on a loan deal so he had taken the liberty of making a similar offer. All I knew is that he was ambitious for regular game time and whoever he went to would be a stepping stone and no more. I was intrigued.

We would have to wait until the evening to hear of Defensor Sporting’s result but first we had to win our game. All but two teams in the other group could reach the Final but ours was locked between a league leader and us, the current holders. For the first time in my reign we would wear our dark grey away kit with black stripes. It was indeed fitting for the occasion. A downpour greeted the players on their entrance into the stadium. Under floodlight Rodríguez picked up a quick booking as we looked to assert ourselves. It was a tricky start, especially with Saracchi missing a glorious opportunity to get us in front with his head, but then the two wingers were really able to get their foot around the ball and cross into Rivero. Rossi curled one in behind the defence for the tall striker to cushion his volley from the penalty spot and give us the lead. For the rest of the half we weren’t our usual, dominant selves. The host formation was the same as our weapon in training, 4-3-1-2 Narrow. It nullified all of our threats and, in truth, was a good sign for when we needed to employ the situation in reverse. If the rain stopping during the break would help us, we could throw on the two youngsters for games.

Lares benefitted from Saracchi’s post-World Cup tiredness, while G. Rodríguez was again given half an hour to shine up front. No sooner had the fourth official got his board in the air, a second booking for the defensive midfielder saw the new striker plan shelved. After assessing the situation for ten of the longest minutes, Lares was finally allowed on. Sud América were really struggling to find a way in to our defence, though, with Poyet doing the job of two men screening the back line. Worryingly, we witnessed nerves from our vice-captain Quintana on a number of occasions. Perhaps he was weaker than I thought. We would have to spend big if Formiliano did go. For the final ten we freshened our attack up with Fernández coming on for Waller, who had failed his big audition today. It was an ugly win in the end. If only we could have learned how to do that earlier in the Intermedio for the draw at Cerro or the defeat at Defensor Sporting. Again we held the players back in the dressing room to get the radio on for the final game to decide our fate. After seven minutes they had scored so we turned it off. The game finished 4-0 and they were deserved finalists. To top it all off, Nández had rejected a bid from Nacional and ourselves to sign a deal for ten times as much in China. Uruguay can’t get near that kind of money. To rub salt into the wound Nacional finished top of the other group by a point. A single point. It made my blood boil that they had been so lucky.

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324.

With a month until the beginning of the Closing Stage, I had a lot of time on my hands. Working with Néstor in whittling down the scouting targets in the mornings while training the men and boys hard in the afternoons. There was time for improvement and, more importantly, continue tactical work in earnest. My 3-5-2 would rear its ugly head as I looked to address the real possibility of having no real fullbacks in the squad. Based on the as yet untested 4-3-1-2 Narrow, the number ten is removed and the defensive midfielder drops into the back line. We had to see how both formations worked so we arranged games against the youth sides in a couple of weeks time. It would be good preparation for all. Nahuel Peñalba elected to stay in Argentina so our second offer of the summer was dead as well.

The third was quickly into action, De los Santos making an unbelievable $24million offer for the next big thing – literally. Facundo Zapata was the darling of the national Under-20s, standing at 200cm or so. I just couldn’t stomach that kind of money for a striker with only a good Intermedio behind him. Surely this was just a knee-jerk reaction to a fantastic run for the youth side in the calendar year, on the back of solid Juventud de América and U-20 World Cup following it. He had to be cheaper in the winter window. I overruled this madness. Sure, he was in incredible form. But did we need a target man with the way we play? I couldn’t abide by that sort of reckless abandon with the transfer kitty.

Frustrated with our failure to make the final of the Intermedio, I took it upon myself to watch it. The current clear league leaders Defensor Sporting travelled to Gran Parque Central, home of Nacional. I wanted to see what our two biggest rivals this season had that we didn’t – and I’d be looking to strip them of their assets. It was the only way to bridge the gap to winning the overall league for the year.

My ambition knew no bounds. I don’t know what came over me but I wanted everyone to know the Peñarol manager would be in attendance. I wanted all eyes on me and for the players to play out of their skin to impress me. I declared interest in the vacant national team position. I had only been in the country for a month! We had set many records without winning a damn thing: most goals, most goals by a single player, most assists – it was a remarkable start. This was a team with nine defeats in 12 before I showed up. Diego Imposta was the name on everyone’s lips and I cashed in with a bullish attempt at self-aggrandising. The next morning – the day of the game – De los Santos called. I knew he would be furious. First, I cancelled his career-defining move as a Director of Football and now had the audacity to think I could run his country. I let it ring for longer than usual. Diego, President Noble has been on the phone to the Football Association all night. They have thrashed out the details. The job is yours! I was stunned, astounded. What? The Football Association – they want you to manage the national team. President Noble has arranged everything. You will be allowed to do both jobs at the same time. Well, say something! I couldn’t. I hung up. This was a joke. Surely this was a wind-up.

He rang again. It really wasn’t a joke. They want to meet with you after the Final to talk about plans.

I felt faint. My knees started to go. This was happening. I would go to the game as the national team manager-elect. Bravado had sealed the deal. The terrible era since Óscar Tabárez retired had stained the reputation of the country. They’ve taken an enormous gamble. The boy from Barcelona lands on his feet halfway across the world. What a month!   

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325.

The leather creaks as I shift my weight. The man has his gaze fixed on my eyes and I cannot be the first to break. The clock behind him ticks forever. Wilmar Valdez, still the President of the football association after the FIFA scandal, bobs his head and cracks a colossal smile. He can’t believe this either. He begins to speak - his face, shoulders, and hands animated. We must promote the sport across the entire country. Develop relationships with other associations, he continues, and adhere to the rules of play. Time is on your side, Diego, but the future is behind schedule. The Toulon finalists and Sub-20 winners did not deliver beyond their teenage years and approach the prime of their lives without any further achievements. The smile is long gone now. He rolls his sleeves up as he speaks. A month ago, we had never heard of you and now we must ride your coattails. This is football; we double down when we lose. We needed to give the nation hope. So you must not let us down. If you do, you cannot expect to keep the good will you enjoy. From Peñarol or the good people of Uruguay. We run the divisions here, too, and if you fail us you cannot expect to work in this old country again.

He made himself very clear; I would have to commit to the nation full time. There are politics at play, Diego. You cannot leave Peñarol now. We do not have any competition matches until after the end of the season and you have a title to win. You must prove to us all that you are the right man for the job. Carlos Adrián Noble will be remunerated for your part-time services but we are not in a position to sustain this cost. However, my country will always come first. There are other ways that I can help your club president and, if you are still here in six months, you will have a decision to make. Glory for La Celeste or glory for Aurinegros – you must nail your colours to the mast. I trust you’ll choose well.

If that man made me feel uneasy, the man next to me had me terrified. Mario Rebollo, the assistant to the national team managers for fifteen years, had not said a word nor looked up during the whole exchange. This was a company man and no mistake. He’d seen it all and come out unscathed during and after Tabarez’s reign. Valdez motioned to Rebollo and stated that their right-hand man stepped up when his country needed him and renounced the captaincy of 35-year-old legend Luis Suárez and made Lucas Torreira the poster boy of my reign. It was hardly a decision I could renege on now, he’s easily the most marketable asset we have, and they knew I wouldn’t dirty Barcelona laundry. Was he captain material? Could these two players cope with being in the same club and country side? These two henchmen had effectively retired Suárez, surely. The wheels of change were in motion and I was running behind playing catch-up. This would not end well. I had to stamp my authority on this squad and fast. I retired for lunch on my own, desperately searching the internet for everything I could find out about my new charges. Who else had been maligned by the powers that be? Who wanted their revenge on Rebollo?

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326.

Poland away in six weeks. In many ways they had followed a similar trajectory to my new charges in the last few years. Bad followed good and, given La Celeste’s shambolic showing at the World Cup, it spoke volumes that our terrible year beforehand meant we could only attract exhibition opposition that didn’t even make the finals. As yet there were no other games in the schedule. I had to change perceptions in national team board rooms across the world in order to give the players a challenge.

The first was my own. With European teams locked into Nations League fixtures I had to look further afield if I wanted to arrange last-minute run-outs. The Copa América was next summer and I thought to myself whether any preparation was worth it. We could only play teams who had no pretentions of ever making a tournament before the year was out. The Under 20s had a warm-up game arranged before the Juventud de América began in January and this too presented an unwelcome distraction.

Along with Suárez almost certainly being removed from the national team, Edinson Cavani had made the decision himself. As had reserve goalkeeper Martín Campaña. Nacional’s captain and centre back Erick Cabaco’s off-field issues after the tournament had him excluded from the squad and he’d need to play himself back into the team. Criticising the coach on social media for leaving him out for losses against Iran and Portugal was not a wise move. I’d have to meet him eventually but for now he’s bad news. No to mention that my morning meeting showed that upsetting my national president will be all too easy to do. I walked back in to meet him and was relieved to see Rebollo had gone. Now we’d really be able to talk. The paperwork he’d amassed on his desk in the interim was enormous. He had the staff tracking stats on 130 players in all but only a handful were being watched each week. It was madness. Half of them hadn’t even made an appearance for their country! We need to know about every man and boy who had pulled on a national team jersey before to open the redemption doors.

Rebollo and Under 20s boss Fabián Coito had served together for so long they’d surely outlast me as well. I had to be shrewd and take baby steps. With three gaps in the squad I’d take recommendation from the scouts for swift replacements but one of them had to be a goalkeeper. The most exciting of the reports was on the top of the pile – Gastón Pereiro. He was a playmaker over in the Netherlands with PSV but barely had a run in the side for his national team despite posting impressive numbers.

It would be a big olive branch to the fans of Nacional, too, taking one of their home-grown sons into the fold while Cabaco sat out. If I could unify the nation with small gestures, then the tournament in Ecuador next summer could get us all back on track. Without doubt Defensor Sporting’s man in goal was having the season of his or any other Campeonato Uruguayo goalkeeper’s life. If they do win the league and I’ve not called up their award-winning shot-stopper then all hell will break loose. It’s just as much about building bridges as rewarding fine form, so I vow to give a debut to the Intermedio’s top goal scorer…

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327.

We play Poland a few days before Cristian Palacios’ 32nd birthday. The loyal Peñarol servant had not been called up to the national team before but would enter his 15th season with at least a single cap. Six loan spells away from the club as a youngster took him across the capital, out to Argentina twice, and Ecuador for good measure. The travelling would not phase him but the game was beginning to take its toll on his body. The mind was still there – possibly the smartest poacher in the league – but for all the sentiment he would have a partner to do the legwork for him. The national team played a 4-2-2-2 DM formation and I wasn’t about to rip that up immediately. It was interesting to see which players they had to crowbar into the system. Former Juventus man Rodrigo Betancur was moved to the right wing as playmaker to accommodate the Real Madrid and Barcelona defensive midfield pair of Lucas Torreira and Federico Valverde. The latter was a former Peñarol youth who moved direct to Madrid but had to make do with loan spells throughout La Liga after an inaugural season at Castilla.

The real test of the modern player was in England or Spain, although a lot of players still felt that the real prestige was to be found in the Argentinean or Brazilian leagues. In truth, the diaspora was not going to be too much of an issue for me until I started making changes to the squad. Muslera’s time out in Turkey would go unchecked as, at 36, he was surely the next in line to be ruthlessly moved on. It seemed as if versatility is a very important part of Uruguayan football culture but perhaps this was also their downfall. With Suárez and Cavani gone, there will have to be numerous auditions. With up to half of the under-20s now ineligible for the next game, the gap to the national team couldn’t have been less ideal: a four-year hole in transition from one team to the other. It was time to watch these boys closely. First I needed to address the men, under my charge in name only. This was a sect that I couldn’t dare hope to lead. They were all too ingrained in a storied history of jobs for the boys. I had to take baby steps with the organisation of the national team, for few would follow a fresh outsider.

Rebollo was tasked with appointing the last two captains, so his influence was enormous. A modest career as a footballer took him to Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. Gaining a handful of international caps, he was too experienced to cast aside even at 57. His defensive mindset had only been tested at international level, though, and with a strike partnership of Suárez and Cavani to play with over the last fifteen years I have to firmly point the finger at him for these defensive failings. He is unscathed.

Diego Demarco was a similar age, a little younger, and had largely played at Central Español before moving on to Liverpool de Montevideo as he expanded his coaching career in various youth setups. He mixed with both teams at national level and after six or seven years here it was obvious that he is just a puppet with no real influence. Tabárez’s main fitness coach, José Herrera, is fast approaching the twilight of his career and his catalogue of coaching at top clubs in Italy and Argentina would sure be of benefit to me before the year was out. When he goes Rebollo will have no more friends here…

Another to straddle both teams was physio Richard López, seemingly told to once Tabárez left. There was already a senior ahead of him, Esteban Montes, who had worked with the national team for just over 20 years. I couldn’t get my head around what these men had done to justify such longevity. The backbone of the youth side, busy together elsewhere, was a very tight knit group of men.

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328.

Manager Fabián Coito and his assistant Gustavo Ferreira both had links to Peñarol which was a great introduction for me. With fifteen and ten years in their roles they had held strong producing players but the manager above them always eschewed their work or failed to build on it. Goalkeeping coach Carlos Nicola and fitness coach Sebastián Urrita were a little younger still but again had ten or fifteen years in the setup. The quartet’s separative oddball experiences playing abroad really seemed to get them together and I wondered if they could all be transplanted into the senior squad, depending on the result of the Juventude de América tournament. They had a very busy six months of scouting on.

Speaking of which, I had none in the setup. I could not rely on Rebollo as the president’s right-hand man so an advert was asked for. I wanted someone who would want to work with me and only me.

I took an empty office and settled down with videos from the World Cup to try and figure out what system the previous manager was deploying. Valverde was given a creative role from deep, almost a regista, and linked up well with Betancur coming inside from the right. I wasn’t sure about a winger on the opposite flank but good play did lead to a goal inside the first five minutes, Carniero rocketing a shot into the roof of the net. Senegal weren’t the power they once were and soon after it became apparent that the move was a one-off: the winger was told to drive inside his full-back. Torreira was on set-pieces which seemed a bit odd as he was deployed deeper behind Valverde in transitions. The line was being led by Carniero and his huge frame and athletic ability melded well to a solid technical ability. Suárez was looking for him at every opportunity. I hoped my Dutch import could do the same to make things happen. However, the game was quite boring as the Uruguayans sat back and looked to hit the Africans on the break. Allowing mediocre teams the ball is a fine tactic but only for a while.

Senegal really should have equalised with a striker missing a one-on-one with his volley from a cross before a flurry of bookings for my charges saw out the half. They had real trouble with any discipline.

Cavani was on for the second half in place of Suárez, Carniero doing well dropping deeper, but both full backs sat far too deep for my liking. Who was going to supply the crosses into him? In fact, there was no need, Valverde slipping a through ball for the veteran to thunder home. The players enjoyed getting their foot on the ball now, and a double substitution changed the game. A new left wing and strike partner for Cavani saw a third added five minutes from time. Valverde engineering a pass for López to head home and silence the opposition. An own goal by Coates, a mis-kick unopposed, made the game longer than it needed to be and again showed up the team’s inability to deal with crosses. This was no show of strength from Uruguay. No World Cup vigour - just a poor win against also-rans.

The enormity of Australia was a problem for every team. Next up was a 500-mile trip to Melbourne from Adelaide and knowing the result, a 0-2 loss to Iran, made even viewing it tiresome. A third leg to Sydney for the crushing 1-4 defeat at the hands of Portugal was another 800 miles. Every journey was bigger than Uruguay and many of these players were just not used to that kind of travel. I didn’t want to learn much from these collapses so I skimmed through them to not fixate on individuals who made mistakes. The system was broken – I could see that in victory – so I had to fix it in 90 minutes.

One thing was for certain: I had to stop this team from dining out on past glories.

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329.

There was just enough time to get ready for the match tonight. Nacional versus Defensor Sporting, a battle for the eventual title at the end of the season encapsulated in the Intermedio final. I had to be there, ready to steal a player or two to make sure it was a three-horse race. I desperately need cover at full back and one youngster from Defensor is one I will be jettisoning from the national team as he is too old for the Under-20s: Carlos Molina. He’s played all year for them at left back – a key player. If building bridges was my main aim for Uruguay then I’d be steering clear of any player from Nacional.

Gran Parque Central: the home of the enemy. Could Nacional’s home advantage make a difference? Defensor were six points clear in the overall table so this was a freestanding slugfest to draw a line in the sand for my great rivals. 30 000 would fill this place for one last time before a two week break to herald the Closing Stage of the Campeonato, when all would be decided. Peñarol were far enough in the distance to not present a threat but we were just getting our season back on track. Time will tell.

The weight of noise around the stadium was choking the players. Nacional outnumbered Defensor’s fans by about ten to one. It took ten minutes to see a shot of meaning, attacking midfielder Müller’s free header sent over for the home side. Defensor, persisting with their 4-2-4, breathed great relief.

With panicked shots raining in, Defensor dug deeper and deeper. The nerves were permeating those in white now, while the deep purple of Defensor Sporting made them appear as if larger in number.

An outrageous, ambitious diagonal strike from deep by the number ten atoned for earlier. It’d sailed high and dipping toward the top corner from easily 40 metres and new Uruguay third-choice ‘keeper López handsomely got an arching glove to it, only to watch on as none of his defenders reacted as he got up off the floor. 20-year-old José Giménez stole in first and clipped the ball home. It was a terrific way to turn the screw on Defensor, who were looking more and more frustrated by the minute. Did they have enough to fight back? No! Penalty! There’s been a reckless challenge chasing a lofted ball into the left channel and, with fifteen minutes until half time, Nacional can double their lead. First to the ball is diminutive central midfielder Freddy Alvarez. It’s a long, wide run up and… saved! López had gone the wrong way but pulled a wrist back to knock wide the softest, most central penalty I’ve seen in a long time. Game on! Molina was looking aggressive now, the will to win strong. I liked him.

He wanted to channel that energy when all about him were losing their heads. He earned himself a booking soon after, tempering my affinity somewhat. The Defensor right winger didn’t come out of the tunnel after half-time, finally succumbing to his injury. The game was so tight in the second half, the rain beginning to pour on proceedings. There would be one more mistake in this one, surely. My man Molina was looking determined now, adversity making him a better player, although in truth no player had really caught the eye in the first hour. Olés from the crowd nearly went suitably punished with a long ball over the top, but again those shots were just not getting on target for the away side.

It was beginning to become a very damp game indeed. Another wonderful save from López kept it all a bit too respectable for my liking. Nacional had been totally dominant, allowed to play in front of an accommodating defence tonight but equally they couldn’t quite get in behind too often. With those famous blue and white colours falling from the sky in celebratory ticker tape, it was time to go. I’d be on the ‘phone to Molina’s agent…

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330.

Something shook me out of my slumber. There were four weeks until the season resumed for all of the Peñarol sides, and the usual Monday morning text brief to the players ahead of Tuesday training came as a shock: Double fitness sessions this week, treble fitness the two weeks after, and you’ll be seeing double again in the build-up to the first game. I would spend the day with De los Santos, just to try and tidy up our watch list. The reality was that no-one of worth wanted to change clubs here.

We would expect Head of Youth Development Luis Duarte to welcome a new youth intake this week and it changed plans for our behind-closed-doors games. The schoolkids would now play the youths and the first team would play the reserves this weekend. It felt senseless that it would’ve been eight weeks since the reserves and youths had last played. I really have been too busy to keep an eye out. That gave us three weeks after to find competitive games to get them all up to speed, if its required.

De los Santos informed me that he would like to make a bid for Boca defensive midfielder Benítez on loan. There would be competition, of course, but with the possibility of Poyet dropping back into the back three there could be a space for him. He’s strong, quick, and works hard. How could I say no to that? I pressed him for more details and Boca were looking to jettison a transfer that didn’t work out from the lower leagues. An immediate loan to the team that ended up finishing rock-bottom of the league killed any love from the directors and the manager had to move him sideways. We can assist!

I got a call from Rebollo, apparent secretary to the Football Association, who wanted me to confirm a few exhibition match options. It was my turn for a surprise. The President wanted us to learn how to travel again and had arranged a match in Ecuador after the Poland game – I just had to decide the day. If that wasn’t bad enough, the return to Australia in October was going to be too tough on these players’ psyche. I told him to make sure the President scraps them both. Let the youth learn how we travel – send them to Australia instead. It would be one last celebration before some of them moved on. With all my interjections he had forgotten about Costa Rica. A double bill for the return from the World Cup redemption match. The men at the FA are mad – the problems have not been addressed yet. I agreed to the youth team meeting up with us there so we could sign off the year together and in style. I hung up on him, stressed that I was not involved in such big decisions. I had a day job, too.

The media were still trying to engineer a move for the giant teen forward Zapata, although the price had now gone up, and I wondered whether he may end up being a panic buy late in the window. My attempts to prize Molina from Defensor were dead in the water – no rival club would negotiate with us. Their finances were in as good shape as ours, relatively speaking, and dropping $30million in this league would alter the future. If we were going to spend it had to be foreign.

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331.

Estadio José Pedro Damiani, named after the previous president, was a dry and unforgiving place. In this hostile arena the youth candidates would undoubtedly prevail, their joy at playing on the dusty surfaces of Montevideo giving them the right temperament. Peñarol’s youth side were consistently in the upper half of the table but for half a decade the title was always a three horse race between Nacional, Defensor Sporting, and Wanderers. That Zapata link again. Should we test the water early?

For five of these players, it could be their last game at this level. The reserves, replacing Wanderers in the above trio, were used to competing for the title and were a little off the pace this year. Those reinforcements should help swell their ranks and make room for the 16 new faces in the kids team. They would be too old next season and with a rumoured future star in goal coming through, one of the youth ‘keepers already on a full time deal would go with them. In turn J. Silva would be given his chance in the first team as promised and all was right with the age groups. 21 players in each squad.

A breezy afternoon made for long, weighted passes. The schoolboys, wearing black shirts with dark grey stripes, black shorts, and black socks, looked menacing. The third kit looked absolutely deadly.

It was great to see these sides in action – the last two months had gone in the blink of an eye. There might be talent here, yet. A relentlessly determined central midfielder won the ball and played in the centre forward, who coolly took the ‘keeper to ground and slotted home after ten minutes. He was causing all sorts of problems up front and hooked a daisy-cutter into the bottom corner five minutes later. I sat up in my seat. Who is this young man? Paiva came the reply. Both wingers from the youth side were becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of service from behind. It really was a position we lacked depth in across all three sides. How desperately I wanted Molina to mirror Narvaez’s right.

Five minutes before half time Paiva had his hat-trick, taking a second bite at a shot and wheeling out towards his parents in the stands. What a dream audition for him. A fire was lit under the home side at half time and a renewed endeavour was shown. The young man in goal had a lot to say about any potential comeback, though, and showed a very calm pair of hands to his defence. It pleases me that there will be real competition to end the season with. The last six months mean nothing in football.

After a long second half, Peñarol Under-19s finally clawed one back, Hérnan Fernández nodding in at the near post in the 80th minute. The big lone centre forward squandered a second chance to reduce the deficit further, his shot more suited to a rugby conversion. He seemed best with his back to goal.

Winning the second half was the least I expected of Bello’s men, although I wanted him to improve if he and his staff had any ambitions of staying at the club. Now I was giving him the tools to do his job.

Limiting ourselves to three changes to the starting line-up, we prepared normally for the reserves. In the next few weeks we can reassess tactical plans to move to three at the back or the narrow central formation of Peñarol’s recent past. Guruceaga got his start in goal after finally recovering from jetlag due to the World Cup. There was still time for Torres and Rodríguez – the two players recalled from loan – to cement a space in the squad and I would give them every chance with attacking positions.

Four senior players were not required to prove themselves to me: Gelpi in goal, Argentinean Elizari, and main goal scorers Palacios and Rivero. This would be a slightly different set-up today, with our front two both looking to score goals.

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332.

A full compliment of substitutes was taken by Perdomo, obviously impressed with the second halves of the youth players yesterday. A couple of the schoolboys were brought along for further analysis of their abilities but thankfully Paiva and Scala were left out to enjoy their weekend with their families.

A woeful pass off the pitch from Píriz within seconds took my mind off the game. I needed a new left back – he was just a defensive midfielder crowbarred into a position he would never fully impress in.

We were playing some good stuff, Saracchi able to stretch his legs after recovering from a summer in Australia and Rossi on the opposite flank striking the underside of the crossbar with an ambitious hit.

The reserves predictably offered no threat but they were steadfast in defence. These are the players that I wanted to see anyway. It took half an hour but our dominance was rewarded with the wingers combining with a classic cross to the far post for the former striker to head in. Rossi was becoming a very good player out wide and Saracchi’s pace was, to use an old cliché, like a new signing. Happy to wrap them in cotton wool, Fernández was asked to play on the right and Lares on his favoured left. It hadn’t been a stellar performance from the front two yet but they are still acclimatising to my style.

Within two minutes the new wingers combined beautifully, Fernández raking a ball square across an exasperated defence and into the path of Lares to clip home underneath the goalkeeper. It was poor from J. Silva but in fairness he had not had a save to make in the first half. The first goal was so good.

He followed it up with a good amount of saves as I urged the team to up the tempo and force some opportunities. We dropped a little deeper in an attempt to get the strikers on the ball a bit more but even though it created space they just weren’t having good games. Calm turned into disinterest and before long the reserves had a corner and scored, two central defenders working a goal themselves.

Rodríguez and Torres finally got in on the action a few minutes from time, the former putting Lares in on goal to finish past a stranded goalkeeper. It was excellent to see the youngest player in my side do so well. There was time for one more with one of the last phases of play, that man-mountain of a captain Formiliano heading in for 4-1. The professionalism shone through in the end and again I was pleased, especially heading into a two-week fitness camp. I had a sentimental journey planned at the other end of it. Albion, the oldest team in Uruguay, would be a feel-good warm-up for the Clausura.

Our newly reformed reserve and youth sides would take each other on at the same time to give the players time to get to know each other on the pitch. Santiago Benítez was soon in from Boca and he was happy to be a part of our club. I gave him the number 18 shirt. No sooner had we finished when Zapata’s agent was on the phone. He wanted us to make an offer – he had pre-approved a transfer!

I decided to low-ball with an offer for the entirety of his contract from its start two years to its finish next summer. I knew it would be rejected out of hand but I could always turn the players head later.

Two loan offers came in for Torres – perhaps that poor performance got him talking to his agent. We simply hadn’t seen enough of him yet to let him go and Elizari had just picked up an injury, too. I said no. I certainly didn’t want him going back to River Plate de Montevideo. Sud América wasn’t much of an upgrade either, although they were offering key player status. River Plate also came back with the cheek to bid for Lares!

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333.

Wanderers were not messing around, rebuffing all sorts of offers. I simply wasn’t going to give them enough funds to challenge for the title next season. Meanwhile, the scouting role for Uruguay came with a few interesting applicants. Not least my own trio at Peñarol, but another set from Nacional. It really was a close-run thing but I opted for the man who had given Defensor Sporting their charge to the latter stages of the Copa Libertadores this season: John Syzard. He was just the right age and was able to demonstrate wider tactical knowledge with his application which earned him a shot on merit.

A very late decision to play 3-5-2 saw the two former loan players play up top together and Elizari in the middle of the park again. New signing Benítez came with a versatile but small bench. This was an  yellow shorts and socks against the red and blue halves of Albion and the front two were desperate to impress. However, swings and misses led to Saracchi clobbering the ball home from a Rossi cross three minutes in to give us the lead. Rodríguez clipped in a second ten minutes later and despite the link-up play with his strike partner was having a much better time of it generally. Torres could be off.

Elizari put a half-volley in off the bar and to save him from further injury he was replaced by the new boy on half an hour. The boy from Boca would have the freedom to run at two defensive midfielders and show me what he can do with a football. As an aficionado of all things Argentinean, I just hoped there was something mercurial in his talents. He took some time to settle but was soon striking out from range. He seemed to get the best out of Torres and Rodríguez, too, although that wasn’t saying much. Sirino and G. Rodríguez were thrown on the flanks for the last half an hour to try and impress.

In truth we hammered Albion at walking pace but it was an excellent test of the formation. We had a wind-down of sorts in terms of fitness intensity before preparing for games back in the Campeonato.

De los Santos went back in with another offer for Zapata. If they accepted this now it would be some coup. His contract had a year to run and $22million would be tremendous work, especially as he had to be poached by a bigger club if he hit the ground running. A loan offer for Rodríguez was rejected after the match but the squad needed to be trimmed all the same. I just didn’t want to send both of them to a sideways move – I wanted to get the best out of them. Perhaps others would want to go.

The re-opening of the league gave us three fixtures inside a week. First and second were teams we had already beaten 5-1 in the Intermedio, Rampla Juniors and Liverpool de Montevideo, followed in turn by River Plate de Montevideo. We should not expect a problem from any of them and I demand nine points as standard. Fearing nothing from their wing play, we would line up with the 4-1-3-2 that the staff here so loved. Should we experience any problems, all four wingers were ready to step in.

As it turned out, Wanderers rejected De los Santos’ offer. They’d play the long game for his contract. I dismissed a derisory offer for Formiliano from a Portuguese team and pressed ahead hoping more did not arrive for other players. De los Santos managed to unsettle Píriz with his constant bidding for anything with a pulse but by the time deadline day came we had our squad of 22 cut down to 21. On the morning of the deadline Poyet was ruled out for up to eight weeks, which effectively ended his season. Worse still, a late rumour about Sirino attracting interest from Argentina worried me sick. I’d not realised their window was still open for another week yet.

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334.

The difficulty for the Ramplas game was that along with Poyet tough-tackling Á. Rodríguez was also out, suspended for one game. G. Rodríguez had become a highly influential player in the last two or so months and would have a chance to shine as the left centre-forward in our 4-3-1-2 narrow, much like his initial role when I first arrived. Similarly, Sirino was tasked with sitting on the right of the trio but easing out wide when the opportunity arrived. This tactic was more of a natural progression for the squad rather than ripping it up and starting again. We had this long week to iron out any issues.

Saracchi moved to left back with Píriz occupying the defensive central midfield, and Rivero came on to play number ten with Palacios in front and Elizari behind on the left side of the engine room. The rest of the side kept their place, so only a few personnel changes to keep things motoring along well.

Positionally, we looked fine. Our yellow shorts and socks shone but it was clear that things were just not landing for us in front of goal. We actually looked nervous, unable to make our early dominance count. Perhaps we were guilty of overplaying. Ramplas were doing a good job of shutting us out with their two defensive midfielders but both Palacios and G. Rodríguez squandered one-on-one chances and we were heading into half time 0-0. Some of our play in the middle of the park was so safe, and  just as we would normally prepare to walk down the tunnel we watched on mouths open as Saracchi beat his man in the middle of Ramplas territory on the wing and swung a deep cross over to the far post for Palacios to head home. Cue pandemonium in the stadium. The majority Peñarol crowd went wild. Winning is all that matters to them. At the break we talked about floating more crosses in. Our direct play had earned the lead, now it was time to go through the gears and pull away. We laboured for the entire second half and Ramplas smelled blood, bringing on new wingers and then a striker to freshen up their chances. Píriz earned himself a substitution with a silly booking on the hour, Benítez coming on for his league debut, wile Elizari followed soon after due to fatigue. Lares had a quiet time of it in the middle but had the luck of being in the right place at the right time, when a deflected shot fell into his path with five minutes to go. Make no mistake, this kid knows how to finish. 2-0 Peñarol.

Ramplas had matched our formation and they crumbled. It was a terrible decision from their coach. It was a terrible game of football, and a tiring one too, but we’d leave with three points as planned. Ramplas found a way through with a long ball over the top from the centre circle and Guruceaga just did not react in time, their striker smashing it home and carrying the ball back where it came from. It was the 90th minute and we had already been nervous. Waller was thrown on at number ten to give us an outlet. He did his job well, occupying defenders with his fresh legs and surging attacking intent.

There were no surprises to be had elsewhere in the league the next day, keeping us at arm’s length.

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335.

Liverpool de Montevideo would wipe the floor with us if we continued with the same system. They had a winger looking to get beyond Saracchi and a playmaker looking to pull Sirino’s attention out wide, which would leave an imbalanced three against three in the middle. Our usual formation was trained in the scant time we had between games this week and changes were afoot to keep it fresh.

Á. Rodríguez in for Elizari was the obvious switch, giving us two defensive midfielders to sit in front of our back line. The Argentinean magician was already tired and didn’t need to be risked again just three days later. Rossi and Waller were recalled to the flanks after such shot-shy performances from Sirino and G. Rodríguez. Palacios was also guilty but at least he scored, as he always seems to, and I also saw fit to pull Lares out of the firing line completely as Píriz had now developed paranoia about his own place in the team. The kid had his whole career ahead of him and I had to eke it out of Píriz.

Formiliano and Guruceaga obviously had other things on their mind after the mix-up at the back in the last game. Both came to me separately to say they would drop their requests to leave and want to stay until the season end. It was fantastic news and I hoped that meant consecutive clean sheets were on the forefront of their mind, too. Liverpool de Montevideo were currently without a coach.

A particularly drab opening 20 minutes in the ever-increasing rain saw us come out on top with our technical superiority. We kept the ball well and Palacios poked home after Waller had struck a post.

Rivero was forced off with what looked like ankle ligament damage on the stroke of half time. This is a big opportunity for Benítez, who had the ability to play on the fringes of either box. This still felt for all the world like a pre-season game as we were never afraid to pass backwards. The game was won – if we could keep our cool at the back – and Benítez was enjoying the freedom of expression. Torres was given fifteen minutes to impress up front on his own, away from the shadow of B. Rodríguez, in order to rest Palacios for the weekend. There was still no word on how bad Rivero was but he had to be taken down the tunnel for assessment. We were far from our swashbuckling Intermedio best but another three points is all we want. The medical department could only tell me that it could be up to a month that Rivero could miss but the real good news was that Defensor held Nacional 1-1 at home to give us a fighting chance. Only ourselves and Cerro had won two from two. It seemed we were all a bit sluggish at the beginning of the Clausura. There was a healthy five point gap below us now, and only three to our bitter rivals. There was still a long way to go to catch Defensor, but that nine points could be six if we beat them at home. From the highs of bringing 55 000 fans to Ramplas Juniors and then 40 000 to see off Liverpool de Montevideo at home, we would have to settle for ten percent of that at River Plate de Montevideo. Torres had to show his worth.

Edited by Diego Imposta

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336.

An injury inside a minute disrupted the game, River Plate’s number ten being replaced soon after. If anything, it sped things up. The game became end to end. I did not like the lack of control on display.

A wonderful goal gave us the lead, Palacios coming deep to pin together some excellent passing and G. Rodríguez stormed in behind him to finish a through-ball. I instructed the players to slow it down to remove the chance of losing second balls. We needed time to think with and without the ball. We were really being made to work by the home side, getting tight to our men and looking after the ball.

Quintana put us in the clear with a searing header from G. Rodríguez’s free-kick and Elizari was given the rest of the night off. Torres was on against his old loan club and asked to be more direct to goal. Again, he really struggled and I was starting to worry that he would never hit his stride. It’d normally taken most players five or so games to get there but the penny had to drop for him soon or he’s out.

Guruceaga had to make a couple of smart saves inside the second half and we looked to be burned out. Midway through the second half I ordered a switch to our narrow formation to get a grip on the game. Tactically, we had to stretch the field as River Plate looked to get it down and play through us. B. Rodríguez was unfortunate to be the man tasked with running down the clock. We just looked so brought forward to satisfy the television magnates, and if we won that then I would fully believe we could win the title. A defeat for Cerro felt like the stars were aligning: two points clear of the Closing Stage already. It was a huge psychological boost. I reminded myself to sit the players down for a talk.

I’d do it informally, as we reviewed the tapes from the week together and players and staff in the big room at Palacio Peñarol. It was always good to have a break from the pressures of Estadio Campeón del Siglo and there were better places to eat downtown, too. Three wins from three is a great week.

We looked at home in the national stadium, often a rental option for teams wanting to cash in on big ticket sales against us and Nacional, and the yellow shorts and socks only added to our nice football. The idiosyncratic kits of Uruguayan football only added to the tense tribalism of the barrios. That we could chop and change our three kits, all variations on black and yellow, was just so style conscious!

Before August was over, Inter moved to sign Valverde from Real Madrid for $162.5 million. It was an excellent chance for him to make a real name for himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world. He went to Castilla from Peñarol for less than that as a teenager but he was into his mid-twenties now and had to deliver on the promise he had once shown. A fifth loan move would have been too much.

Big wins for the reserves and Under-19s rounded off the month beautifully - we’re back in business. It was time to make a decision about the national team squad. The youth team manager had already shook the press with his…

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