Diego Simeone has known tough times in management, but success with Atletico Madrid has made him one of the most respected coaches in the world. Ahead of the derby on Saturday, Adam Bate and Terry Gibson look at what the future might hold for Simeone…
November 2008. Guadalajara, Mexico. Radamel Falcao's goal had put River Plate two up on the night and ahead on aggregate. But there followed an all too familiar second-half collapse and by full time River were out of the Copa Sudamericana. A season in tatters.
For coach Diego Simeone, it was the last hope gone. He'd already been left beleaguered by the team's domestic form but this ended any thoughts of salvation. "He has told us that, as of Sunday, he will no longer be coach," River director Rodolfo Cuina confirmed afterwards.
The club had won the Clausura in June but the autumn had been miserable. An 11-game winless streak that included a home defeat to great rivals Boca Juniors left River bottom and would eventually - given the complex nature of the league's format - see them relegated.
None of which, more than seven years on, should detract too much from Simeone's capabilities as a coach. After all, he'd already established his credentials in winning an historic title with Estudiantes let alone the achievements in his early days at River.
But it is a reminder that Simeone is not immune to failure. For all our obsession with the cult of the manager, these figures are dependent on the vagaries of form, fitness and fortune. It's only Atletico Madrid, his home away from home, that's brought Simeone sustained success.
There was Europa League glory and an improbable La Liga title; a Champions League final that took Atletico within moments of the impossible. For Sky Sports' La Liga expert Terry Gibson, a long-time admirer of Simeone, it's at the Calderon that the stars have aligned.
"It was his seventh job in seven years," Gibson tells Sky Sports. "But what he's done at Atletico, he's learnt from the other jobs he's had and now he's the finished article. If he wanted to leave Atletico, I'm sure every club would be keen on getting him."
And yet, it seems that it is Antonio Conte, the manager of the Italy national team, who is the man currently favoured for the Chelsea job, while Manchester United appear content to contemplate the relative merits of Jose Mourinho and Ryan Giggs.
Meanwhile, Simeone will spend his weekend contesting the Madrid derby. Having beaten Real Madrid four times last season, the biggest testament to his work is that a win wouldn't be the shock it once was. Atletico are arguably the best organised team in world football.
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"He's taken on two giants of European football and he's often won," adds Gibson. "He's taken Atletico from a team that was drifting along and a side which had ideas above their station to one which is going toe to toe with Barcelona and Real Madrid.
"His reputation has been questionable at times but it's done him a favour up against Real Madrid and Barcelona, with his siege mentality and win-at-all-costs thinking. Atletico weren't one of the strongest teams when he took over and he had to do it his own way."
But what is the Simeone way? The man himself has suggested in the past that any ideas must be fluid. "You can't have a favourite formation for the simple fact that, as managers, we have to adapt not to what we would like, but to what we have to work with," he explained.
In the world of holistic approaches and philosophies delivered to order, this all sounds more Jose Mourinho than Pep Guardiola and that's reflected in his style. Perhaps it's not in fashion elsewhere, but importantly for Atletico, it works for them.
"His teams will always be hard to break down and organised from the back," says Gibson. "I know his style of football isn't always attractive on the eye but he's intelligent enough to adapt to whatever's needed at another club and still retain the essence of a Simeone team."
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One way he's able to achieve that is by retaining full control. "He's not just the manager of the team, he manages everything at Atletico Madrid," adds Gibson. "He has power over the signings, over the supporters who adore him, and he's absolutely in charge of the club."
"It's not been like that for 20 years at Atletico, the presidents always had the power. They made a big decision bringing him in and they've given him, over the last three or four years, the power to run the football club. He won't get that anywhere else."
Certainly not at Chelsea. And yet, his name continues to be floated in relation to the impending vacancy. There are the suggestions he's learning English and the reports of a release clause in the four-year contract that runs until the summer of 2020.
What's clear is that his exit would be mourned at Atleti, where he's a hero as a player and coach. Walking away will not be easy. "If he was to decide to leave Atletico, it would only be his decision," says Gibson. "Atletico would keep him forever. It's a situation he must enjoy.
"He gets paid well and they're competing against the best in La Liga and the Champions League. The new stadium isn't too far away, as well. That may convince him to stay a little longer. As long as the club match his ambition, I think he'll stay."
As long as the club match his ambition, I think he'll stay.
That won't be a straightforward decision once the suitors do come calling. But having seen the Manchester United job threaten to chew up Louis van Gaal and a list of Roman Abramovich sackings that reads like a who's who of football management, it wouldn't be illogical either.
Maybe that's something to remember as his Atletico Madrid team travel to the Bernabeu on Sunday. And maybe those memories of Guadalajara - of how hard this job can be and how hard he's worked to get it right in the Spanish capital - will inform his next move too.