Injury-plagued López comes good for Estudiantes when it really matters

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The irony of Hernán Rodrigo López scoring the goal which sealed the title for Estudiantes was lost on nobody.

It was a classic López goal, a classic centre forward’s goal, a brilliant header – his second of the game - and was a prime exampble of exactly what he was brought to the club to do at the beginning of the season.

The fact Estudiantes were fighting Lopez’ former club Vélez all the way for the title, and that it was he who scored the title-winning goals on the last day of the season is only half the story.

When Mauro Boselli moved to the Wigan bench, López was signed as his replacement. He was to be the reference point up front for the Pincha and score the goals. Estudiantes forked out nearly £500,000 for his services. This may seem like small change in Europe, where wealthy benefactors from Russia or the Middle East pay their star striker the same amount every fortnight, but £500,000 for a club in Argentina is an enormous investment.

So when López picked up a knee injury on matchday two, the team appeared to be hamstrung. The board were criticised for spending so much of their budget on a player who broke down just days into the new season. López refused to speak to the press after suggestions that he had joined the club knowing he was injured.

He ended up playing just seven games in the 19-match Apertura ’10 campaign. He didn’t start a single match. He was on the pitch for just 120 minutes, managing four goals in those two hours.

Veron: "No - it's my trophy - MINE! You can't touch it!"

And yet on the final day it was López who replaced the injured Verón, and scored the crucial goals. To get to the stage where Estudiantes were within a final-day win to secure the title, the Pincha were forced to improvise and play a completely different system to the one their coach, Alejandro Sabella, had designed in preseason.

Compounding the injury to their striker early on in the campaign, was the blow to morale. Estudiantes suffered unexpected defeats on the continent. They lost the Recopa – South American SuperCup - to Liga de Quito, and then went out of the Sudamericana – Europa League – to Newell’s.

But Sabella tweaked his side, pushed Gastón ‘La Gata’ Fernández further forward as the striker, insisted on midfielders like Enzo Perez getting forward and played three at the back.

In the cold light of day, the results, like the achievements, are undisputable. They beat all of the Big Five, including a 4-0 thrashing of River at the Monumental. They suffocated title rivals Vélez, also away from home and without Verón, keeping the Fort at arm’s length. They won their clásico with Gimnasia. They were top of the table from round eight. They won all nine games at home, setting a new record, and conceded just one goal in the process. Their 45 point haul is one of the best ever in the history of the short-season format.

And contrary to popular opinion, the ‘defensive’ and ‘tactical’ Estudiantes scored only one goal less than the ‘attacking’ Vélez. Just 10 of the 32 goals were from set pieces.

The big question is what happens now at Estudiantes. They face a tough group in next year’s Libertadores. The club has been one of the models of stability in recent years, both on and off the pitch. But how long left does Verón has as captain, and how many of the youngsters will they have to sell?

The key question, though, is whether Alejandro Sabella stays on. He has won the Libertadores and the league with the club. He came within minutes of beating Barcelona in the Club World Cup last year. He was said to be the top candidate for the Argentina job, while River Plate also hope to sign him. His players have begged him to stay on at, while the board have reminded everybody that will listen that he has a contract till June 2011.

After this season’s title win he will not be short of offers, but for now he’ll be enjoying his success, or as he prefers to call it, ‘the glory.’