Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Latest Football News and Opinions From 90 Minutes Online

Almeyda in AEK Athens

A pondering Matías Almeyda

Matías Almeyda. Remember him? The Argentine defensive midfielder was a decent player, who enjoyed a twenty year career between 1991 and 2011, representing his country forty times on the international stage and who played at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. However, these days he's ten years into a managerial career that's seen him building a body of work that is increasingly legitimising his position in the dugout and finds him now based in the birthplace of democracy.


Almeyda Managing in Argentina


The start of Alemyda's journey into management came at River Plate, the same club that bookended his playing career, where he operated between 1991-96 and then for his final seasons on the pitch from 2009-11. Almeyda had previously retired twice but this third time was definitely it, especially after having been part of the first ever River Plate team to be relegated from the Argentine top-flight. However, despite being a part of such unwanted history, the club hierarchy handed the responsibility of bouncing back to the former defensive midfielder.


Thankfully, for all involved, Almeyda lived up to those early expectations. In his opening season as manager Almeyda led River Plate to the Primera Nacional title and back into the top flight. The 2012-13 campaign should have then been an opportunity for Almeyda to consolidate and re-build the team but, of course, with this being River Plate there was unlikely to be much sympathy for that position. Instead, on November 27th, Matías experienced his first sacking as the manager of a football team, after which he was replaced by club legend Ramón Díaz. League results up until this point had been the definition of mixed, with five wins, eight draws and four defeats, but they hardly represented a crisis for a newly promoted team. 


The fledgling manager wouldn't have to wait long for another shot in Argentina though, as Club Atlético Banfield offered Almeyda the chance to go again at the Primera Nacional. And once again he delivered, by winning the title in his first full season in charge (2013-14) and leading a second club to the Primera División. Sadly, his tenure at Banfield would also fail to survive the first season back in the top tier, with the manager leaving in early August of 2015 when the team were twelfth out of thirty, and immediately after defeating Arsenal de Sarandí 4-1. Almeyda had resigned rather than being clearly pushed out but, that being said, rumours circulated of a deterioration in his relationship with the board.

Almeyda Makes a Mark in Mexico


The wait for a new horizon lasted barely six weeks, as Almeyda took the reins at one of the biggest clubs in Mexico, C.D. Guadalajara, most commonly known as Chivas. It was here that the Argentine really started to make some managerial waves, proclaiming that he was "going to be here until the last drop of sweat". At the stage of the season he stepped in, Chivas had qualified for the knock-out stages of the Apertura 2015 Copa MX, and on November 4th of that year Almeyda was celebrating his opening trophy success in Mexico after beating Club León 1-0. 


For Chivas it was a first taste of silverware for nine years, and over the next two and a half years a bumper period followed. There was more cup success with the 2016 Supercopa MX and then the Clausura 2017 Copa MX was secured via a penalty shoot-out versus Atlético Morelia in the final.


In Mexico the Liga MX is the top division but, confusingly, each year sees two champions crowned as the same eighteen teams contest the 'Apertura' and the 'Clausura'. Essentially they each represent half a season, as each league has every team only play each other once. However, to complicate things further, the team that finishes top doesn't necessarily win the championship, instead the top eight teams then move into a two-legged knockout competition to determine the overall winner! This is known as the liguilla (mini league).


The 2017 Clausura championship saw Almeyda lead Guadalajara to 3rd place in the regular campaign. When it came to liguilla, his side squeezed through the quarter-finals and semi-finals to reach a face-off with Tigres UANL, where they triumphed 4-3 on aggregate over the two legs and secured a first league title in eleven years. The culmination of the Almeyda tenure then came with the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League triumph. 


Chivas dispatched the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls along the way to a final against Toronto FC, that resulted in a 3-3 tie after the two legs and the Mexican side holding their nerve in the penalty shoot-out to secure a trophy they had last held in 1962. Despite the unprecedented period of success that Almeyda had delivered in just under three years, this was to be the last hurrah as the Argentine was gone within six weeks of his biggest success to date, with differences of opinion behind the scenes once again being cited as a reason to move on.


Between October 2018 and April 2022, Almeyda was once again managing at a new club, in a new country and league, this time within the MLS with the San Jose Earthquakes. Whilst this union was far from a disaster, the club did reach the MLS Cup Playoffs in the 2020 season, it also represented the first time that Almeyda would fail to win a trophy as a manager of a club. His win percentage over one hundred and three games was a mere 32.04%, a reflection of how much of a struggle the job was. 



An Immediate Impact in Greece


After the inevitable parting of the ways in April 2022, Almeyda made the jump to Europe exactly one month later and took over at AEK Athens, the 3rd biggest club in Greece. The Super League has been dominated over the years by Olympiakos, with forty-seven league titles, and Panathinaikos with twenty. By the summer of last year AEK Athens had been champions of Greece on twelve occasions, their last being in 2018 when they ended a twenty-four year drought.


Since the 2019-20 season the Greek Super League has operated with fourteen teams, playing each other home and away, amounting to twenty-six games per club. This isn't the end of the competition though, as then the top six teams move onto a mini league of ten additional home and away matches against the other five. The results of these are added to the regular season tally, for a final grand total that determines the overall champion. 

The 2022-23 campaign began rather inauspiciously for Matías Almeyda, as AEK Athen lost two of their opening four league games. However, his new team quickly recovered to go on an unbeaten run until the new year that established them in the top two in the table. Here they remained for the rest of the regular season, as Dikéfalos Aetós (The Double-Headed Eagle) finished second in the table behind Panathinaikos. 


It was in the play-offs though when AEK Athens really came into their own, staying unbeaten over the ten games against their title rivals, winning seven of them and twice drawing 0-0 with Panathinaikos. The most impressive result of all came away to Olympiakos, when the Greek powerhouse was beaten 3-1 by two goals in the last ten minutes. Trinbagonian forward, Levi García, converted a crucial penalty to put his side ahead in what was a breakthrough season for him as he registered eighteen goals in all competitions. 


Just twelve months after his appointment as manager, Almeyda had delivered a thirteenth Greek Super League title to AEK, and they weren't done yet. The Greek Cup final loomed at the end of May 2023, and the newly crowned champions had the chance to secure a first domestic double since 1978. Their opponents were PAOK, who have had a remarkable record in the competition in recent years, with 2020 being the only time they've failed to reach the final since 2017 and winning the cup on four occasions. 


Clearly this was no easy ride, but AEK Athens were in the groove after defeating Olympiakos in the semi-finals and securing the league. That being said, they found themselves down to ten men after just six minutes, when right-back Lazaros Rota received a straight red card for pulling back the shirt of Taison after his poor first touch had left the Brazilian rushing in towards the AEK goal (although there looked to be a covering defender). Even so, Almeyda and his team brushed off the setback and went on to win 2-0 in what was a bit of a rearguard action with some counterpunches. 


The one major downside for AEK was that the final was played behind closed doors, a decision taken by authorities due to a history of crowd trouble between the fans of each club. Still, Almeyda has already made a significant contribution to the history of his current employers and they are going well again in 2023-24, having lost just once in fifteen league games and sitting in 4th spot, albeit only three points behind the current leaders PAOK. On the other hand, there has been some disappointment in their performances in Europe, where a good start in the Europa League quickly petered out after they had defeated Brighton 3-2 at the Amex.


Ultimately, that criticism is clutching at straws for what has been another impressive notch on the managerial belt of Matías Almeyda. It's difficult to say how long his Greek adventure will last, but I'm quietly confident that we'll see the Argentine climb further up the greasy pole and appear in a dugout in Italy, or maybe even the Premier League...

Web development by