Argentine "school" -- Simeone, Berizzo, Pellegrino -- vie for Copa del Rey glory
You don't need to think too far back to a time when an Argentinian coach was able to wrap the sky blue and white of his national flag around the Copa del Rey or Primera Division trophies. Step forward Diego Simeone in each instance: the Copa in 2013, the league just 12 months later.
But the gold standard of that achievement can be measured by the fact that in title terms, his victory is one of only three Argentine-coached Primera Division triumphs since 1970: Alfredo Di Stefano in 1971-72 and Jorge Valdano in 1994-95.
As far as the Copa goes, Simeone's "statement" is all the more impressive. Only three Argentines since the first tournament in 1903 have won the Spanish Cup: Simeone, World Cup winner Cesar Luis Menotti and the legendary double European Cup-winning Helenio Herrera.
The stats help highlight the fact that there's a 75 percent chance the man who lifts the ancient trophy this season will be one of Herrera, Valdano, Di Stefano and Menotti's countrymen. At a time when Jorge Sampaoli (born in Casilda, Argentina, 1960) feels confident enough to admit publicly that he and his Sevilla side are tilting at the title and when Mauricio Pochettino (born in Murphy, Argentina, 1972) has his Spurs side poised as Chelsea's most relentless pursuers in England, this week's Copa semifinals pit Simeone (Atletico), Mauricio Pellegrino (Alaves), Eduardo Berizzo (Celta) and Spain's sole representative, Luis Enrique, against one another.
Of the three Argentines, Simeone is the "been there, done that" candidate, winner of La Copa as a player and a manager. Berizzo is the "dark horse" given that his Celta side have beaten their major rivals, Atleti and Barça, both home and away since he took over in the summer of 2014, and also defeated their semifinal rivals, Alaves, earlier this month. But if you consider "El Flaco" ("skinny") Pellegrino to be the "close but no cigar" kid in this grown man's quartet, then watch out.
These three men are linked by far more than simple nationality, and while Pellegrino might have the most modest squad considering that his Basque club won promotion only back in May, he's made of the same stern, driven and hungry "right stuff" as Berizzo and Simeone. Smallest city, smallest budget and least top-level experience, sure, but this term, already Alaves have drawn twice with Atlético, won, historically, at the Camp Nou and recently played Celta with 10 men for the entire second half after their towering centre-half, Zouhair Feddal, was sent off.
The reason for all this is that Pellegrino also brings special meaning to the word "intensity." So thorough was he in his preparation for that both merited and terrifically entertaining defeat of the Spanish champions at the Camp Nou -- oh, and in Alaves' third Primera Division game in a decade -- that he "didn't sleep for a week."
Nor is it only relentless intensity that puts him in the same category as Simeone and Berizzo. Ultimately, if this isn't looked back on as a "new school" of Argentinian football thinking in years to come, it'll be a shock.
The three men were born within a 23-month range of each other and you could drive door-to-door between where Berizzo and Pellegrino grew up, in Argentina's Córdoba province, in about an hour. Each of them has played international football for the Albiceleste: Berizzo and Simeone played together for the first time in the national team as early as 1992 in a pre-Olympic tournament.
Strangely, given that none of the three was normally a penalty protagonist, each suffered the cruelest blow possible at the end of a big Cup match: an ignominious and devastating penalty miss.
Pellegrino's, surely, is the most famous. Part of the famous Valencia team that his countryman, Hector Cuper, took to two unsuccessful Champions League finals (against Madrid in 2000 and Bayern in 2001), the centre-half took the 16th penalty of the night in Milan against Bayern (two in normal time, 14 in the shootout) but fluffed his lines. Game over.
Berizzo's first season in South America's version of the European Cup, the Copa Libertadores, saw him and his Newell's Old Boys teammate Pochettino go all the way to the final, where they faced Brazilian powerhouses Sao Paolo. You guessed it: when the second leg was still tied 1-1, Berizzo took the first penalty and followed Pellegrino's lead. Painful defeat.
Simeone? The most decorated player of the three, he too blotted his copy book with a spot-kick failure against Brazil, of all nations, for Argentina in the 1995 Copa America quarterfinal.
If either of these semifinals goes to a shootout, when the Celta, Alaves or Atleti players get a message from their coach not to miss because they'll regret it for the rest of their careers ... it's coming from the heart.
Pellegrino recalled that it "was the biggest lesson of my career. I always worked hard on both my strengths and defects when I played but I'd never practiced penalties.
"I don't really think that was a massive mistake because in my career I took three and missed only one. But I always beat myself up after the Milan final that I wasn't at least better prepared. It taught me never to underestimate any duty in this game."
Each man is coaching a club where he was regarded as a much-loved player: two powerful centre-halves and a streetwise midfielder. Across Argentina and Spain they've gone toe-to-toe dozens of times as fierce, aggressive competitors, with red cards, goals, daring exploits and explosive losses of temper. And while Simeone, for a long spell in what has been an ultra-successful career, placed the nutrition of victory higher up the food chain than entertainment, his conversion this season to what he hopes will produce more flowing, attacking football means that he has moved closer to a "philosophy" shared by Berizzo and Pellegrino.
Berizzo's Celta haven't just stuck eight goals past Barcelona across two mighty Balaídos nights; they play a brand of football that made Luis Enrique say that they were his favourite team in Europe to watch (other than when they are whipping his team, presumably) and Jorge Valdano say "I'll never miss a Celta game with 'Toto' in charge if I can help it. He's one of those coaches who add 'dignity' to La Liga."
Berizzo phrases it differently. "I want my team to always try and take the game by the throat. I do not like to be dominated and to have to play on the counter. I want control.
"Sometimes the final result of a match can confuse people as to what actually happened and as to which team played better."
When Pellegrino explains his idea of what football should look and feel like, he uses phrases and themes that would have his two countrymen purring with delight.
"Football is a 'show' and the best way to respect the paying public is to give absolutely everything that you've got, all the time. Let's give the fans a team which attacks and defends with the same intensity.
"When I was a defender and my team was attacking, I'd always think about what the opposition strikers might be planning, where they might move, what threat might suddenly come back at us. When we were playing the ball out from the back, I tried to make that as intelligent, aggressive and effective as possible."
Wednesday's semifinal between Atleti and Barça in Madrid is the ninth time Luis Enrique and Simone have done battle since the Asturian took over at the Camp Nou in the summer of 2014. It has developed into something of a mini-Clasico stuffed full of plot twists, feuds, ferocity and drama.
But it's in Thursday's second half of the draw that the deeper interest lies. Celta, now a rock upon which the big liners of La Liga regularly flounder, compete to put their Argentine into the Copa final against Alaves, managed by "El Flaco," the skinny guy with the big fat talent.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." Twitter: @BumperGraham.