From Newell's Old Boys to Athletic Bilbao and why Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa is well prepared for the play-offs

MARCELO BIELSA has already admitted his experience of the Football League Championship has been “unforgettable”.

Friday, 10th May 2019, 5:56 pm
BIG GAME PLAYER: Marcelo Bielsa gives instructions to his Argentina side during a session at the Japan and South Korea 2002 World Cup at J-Village Naraha training camp. Left to right are Juan Pablo Sorfn, Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone, Pablo Cavallero, Walter Samuel and Diego Placente. Argentina lost 1-0 to England in their next game as David Beckham settled the contest with a 44th-minute penalty. PICTURE BY DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

That said, Leeds United’s Argentinian head coach has also stressed this season will ultimately mean nothing if Leeds do not achieve their goal of promotion.

Eleven months of meticulous hard work now comes down to a maximum of three games in a four-team mini-league of the Championship play-offs.

At a club desperate to return to the Premier League after a 15-year absence, the stakes and tension could hardly be higher.

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Yet Bielsa says he has handled similar situations before and now only hopes to improve his record in finals by adding a play-offs win at Wembley to take Leeds United back to the promised land.

Despite leading the division for long periods of the season and spending nearly all of it in the top two, Bielsa’s work for the 2018-19 campaign at Leeds now boils down to a maximum of three games and first and foremost a two-legged play-offs semi-final against Frank Lampard’s Derby County.

Even without the backdrop of the spygate affair, the Rams will be seeking revenge for two defeats to Bielsa’s men who lead 6-1 on aggregate over the two games played so far this term.

Much more than that, Derby are also eyeing a return to the promised land for the first time since 2008 with the outcome of tonight’s clash at Pride Park and next Wednesday’s return leg at Elland Road set to determine who will take their place in the play-off final against Aston Villa or West Brom in the richest game in football.

Pressure at its highest yet Bielsa says he is well prepared for his first taste of the Championship play-offs given his past experiences and in particular those spells at Newell’s Old Boys, Argentina and Athletic Bilbao.

At 63, the Argentinian now hopes he can finally add another cup final success to his CV at Wembley in addition to winning gold with Argentina at the 2004 Olympic Games.

Asked if he had experienced anything similar to what the play-offs might offer, Bielsa said: “Yes I lived this kind of situations, I am familiar with them. Many times.

“What I can tell you is that I have been through this many times with the Copa Libertadores, Copa America, Olympic Games, the finals with Athletic Bilbao.

“What I can tell you is that I lost all these finals! Apart from the final of the Olympic Games.”

Modest as ever with Bielsa’s managerial record speaking for itself and all beginning in Argentina at first love Newell’s for whom the Rosario-born manager also began his playing career with.

The former defender helped Newell’s win the 1990 Torneo Apertura and ultimately the league title decider against Boca Juniors who were beaten 3-1 on penalties following a 1-1 draw over two legs.

Bielsa then took Newell’s to the 1992 Copa Libertadores against Sao Paulo who won 3-2 on spot kicks, again after a 1-1 draw over two legs.

Bielsa and Newell’s quickly bounced back to win that season’s Clausura.

Now, ahead of his first taste of the play-offs, United’s head coach says it would be impossible to compare football in England and what is now facing Leeds to anything experienced at Newell’s.

Bielsa said: “The impact that this has, that football has on Newell’s and the fans and the public, taking into account my career, I couldn’t compare anything to what I have lived with Newell’s.

"For us, football is a lot more than what it is for you. Because you keep a level of moderation here that gives the right importance to the results, they put the sports result in the right place but the fans of Newell’s can’t do that.”

When it comes to high pressured finals or knock-out games, for Bielsa, Newell’s was just the start. Next came spells in charge of Club Atlas and Club America in Mexico - and more play-offs - before Velez Sarsfield in Argentina with whom Bielsa won the 1998 Clausura.

After leaving next club Espanyol for the Argentina national side, Bielsa’s bid for glory at the 1999 Copa America ended in a 3-0 defeat to Colombia in which Argentina missed three penalties with Bielsa sent off as his side went out in the group stage.

An Argentina squad that included Mauricio Pochettino, Diego Simeone, Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo were then knocked out in the group stages of the 2002 World Cup with Bielsa’s side then runners-up in the 2004 Copa America and beaten 4-2 on penalties by Brazil.

Yet just one month on, Bielsa led Argentina to glory at the 2004 Olympics as his side won every game with Paraguay beaten 1-0 in the final - the sole cup final win that Bielsa refers to.

After then revolutionising the Chile national side and taking them to the 2010 World Cup, Lokamotiv Moscow, Manchester United, Schalke 04 and Sporting Lisbon were all sent packing over knockout ties as Bielsa took Bilbao to the 2011-12 Europa League final in which Athletico Madrid sealed a 3-0 victory.

Two weeks later, Bielsa’s Bilbao were beaten in the final of the Copa Del Rey by Barcelona.

One season at Marseille followed which led to a fourth-placed finish and then brief spells in charge at Lazio and Lille before Leeds provided the latest challenge for a manager modest about his record.

Bielsa might only recall one cup final victory but three Argentinian league titles, a Copa Libertadore final, a Copa America final, two World Cup qualifications and a Europa League final appearance says it all.

Now comes the challenge to win the very different Football League Championship play-offs.

“Of course it would be an achievement,” said Bielsa. “It’s very important for me and I would feel very proud.”