Teo Gutierrez of River Plate crowned as South America's Player of the Year
River Plate have once more been confirmed as a force to be reckoned with. South America's football writers underlined their return to greatness when Uruguayan newspaper El Pais announced the winners of their annual poll to find the best players on the continent.
The podium was completely dominated by River stars, and a further two made it into the Best XI.
The man crowned Rey de America ("King of [Latin] America"), the title given to the South American Footballer of the Year, was Colombia's World Cup centre-forward Teo Gutierrez. The 29-year-old becomes only the second Colombian to pick up the award, after two-time winner Carlos Valderrama, finishing well ahead of his teammates -- new Uruguay international Carlos Sanchez and Argentine playmaker Leonardo Pisculichi, who joined River in the middle of the year from the relegated Argentinos Juniors.
For Gutierrez -- or Teo, as almost everyone here calls him -- it's by a distance the biggest individual honour of a career that has taken in seven clubs in four countries to date. He hopes to add another league before long; a spell in Turkey with Trabzonspor has been his only European experience to date, and during 2014 he was frequently cited as making noises about wanting another crack at the "old continent," to help bring his family security in the future if nothing else.
Teo has been an incendiary figure at previous clubs. Most infamously, his time at Racing Club, another of Argentina's biggest teams, allegedly came to an acrimonious end when, after being sent off during the derby against Independiente, he pulled what seemed to all appearances to be a gun (reports were cloudy about its exact nature, but some reports claimed it was a paintball gun) out of his kitbag when teammates came into the dressing room angry with him at full-time.
In 2014, though, he got his head down and, apart from distracting himself at times with that transfer speculation, devoted himself to a different kind of sharp shooting, with six goals in the Torneo final (the championship River won during the first half of the year) and 10 in the Torneo de Transicion (they finished second last month). He added one in the Copa Sudamericana campaign and more importantly dovetailed wonderfully with River's top scorer in that competition, Rodrigo Mora.
Teo's work when dropping into wide positions was vital to River's system, and from those deeper areas he's got a keener eye for a pass than he's often given credit for. In spite of his eye for goal and his perceived difficult off-pitch personality, he's a very good team player, and also seems to have mellowed somewhat in the almost three years since the reported gun incident at Racing.
Sanchez has been arguably no less key to River over the past six months, although he wasn't quite as unplayable in the first half of the year. His box-to-box running and fine crosses have seen him singlehandedly turn big games River's way, and his first Uruguay call-up last year was richly deserved.
Pisculichi, relegated with Argentinos in May and a Sudamericana winner with River in December, had nothing if not a mixed 2014.
If River's dominance of the podium seems a little harsh on Copa Libertadores winners San Lorenzo (Ignacio Piatti, who moved to the Montreal Impact between the two legs of their Libertadores final, finished sixth in the poll), it's partly a consequence of what was a very entertaining Copa Sudamericana this year, and also perhaps down to the fact that the Sudamericana, coming in the second half of the year, is a more recent memory as voting closes.
The El Pais article on the voting explains that Pisculichi's third place, for example, was down to a glut of votes after he'd put in a sterling performance (with a goal in the first leg and two assists in the second) in the Copa Sudamericana final against Atletico Nacional.
With a league title in the first half of the year and a second-place finish in the second to go with their Sudamericana triumph, though, it's hard to argue that 2014 wasn't a fine year for River. As well as Gutierrez's goals (he also bagged Colombia's second in their 3-0 World Cup group stage win over Greece) and Pisculichi's decisive influence in big matches, Sanchez's impact was underlined when he picked up two assists in his first two international caps for Uruguay.
Leonel Vangioni's form also saw him again called up for Argentina duty in October, and he, along with goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero -- who excelled far more often than not on the occasions their defence was breached -- made the Best XI.
San Lorenzo fared better in that Team of the Year vote as Piatti, Santiago Gentiletti (who's now moved to Lazio) and midfielder Nestor Ortigoza all made the XI as well. Daniel Bocanegra and Edwin Cardona of Atletico Nacional in Colombia, and Chilean midfielder Charles Aranguiz of Brazil's Internacional completed the team.
Teo's win wasn't only a victory for River, of course, but for Colombia as well, and was capped by national team coach Jose Pekerman being handed, for the third year running, the Manager of the Year award, pipping Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella into second place after he led the country to the World Cup final before they lost to Germany. River boss Marcelo Gallardo finished third, making it a 1-2-3 for Argentina-born managers.
River were already looking like being one of the teams to beat in this year's Copa Libertadores, and the awards voting is only likely to reinforce that impression. The economic realities of Argentine football also mean, of course, that the main aim of the current transfer window -- keeping hold of Teo Gutierrez -- might have become a little bit harder.