Badly hit by COVID-19, River Plate had just 11 available players for its game against Colombian side Santa Fe in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s top club competition. And, they won with a 35-year-old midfielder tending goal in one of the most surprising games of the year.

marcelo gallardo enzo perez river plate
Immediately after the game against Santa Fe, River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo ran to midfielder turned goalkeeper Enzo Perez and congratulated him for his performance. (Image: Twitter / @RiverPlate)

River had to play Enzo Perez in goal, as all of the team’s keepers were out. Bookies had a River win at +600 before the game started. Coach Marcelo Gallardo, one of the most promising new-wave coaches in world football, is now considered a top target for the biggest clubs in Europe. But his mind is set: he’ll only leave River for Real Madrid, those close to him say.

The ‘River’ vaccine against COVID-19

A coronavirus outbreak in River’s squad left Gallardo with just 11 players at his disposal before the Copa Libertadores group game against Santa Fe. The fact that he had to play a midfielder in goal was just a minor detail for Gallardo, who in the end, managed the seemingly impossible with his boys.

Six minutes into the game, River was already 2-0 up at the Monumental de Nunez stadium in Buenos Aires. For the rest of the game, the Argentinean side fought heroically and only conceded once.

River had 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases on the team, with all four keepers out. The South American governing body, CONMEBOL, denied the club’s move to register two keepers from the youth team, so former Valencia midfielder Enzo Perez started between the sticks. Perez couldn’t play in his usual position because he had a muscle problem, so he asked to act as a surprise goalkeeper for this game.

“The goalkeepers in the team texted me, I asked them some things. I did some training with the goalkeeping coach and he gave me some advice,” Pérez told ESPN following his heroics. “I was a little lost, so I used the penalty spot as a reference. To speak about the match has no sense because of what we have lived in this time and what we suffered from COVID-19.”

Perez was only beaten after 73 minutes by Kelvin Osorio. Well protected by his colleagues, Enzo wasn’t forced into any major saves throughout the game. River is first in their Libertadores group, with nine points from five games. Brazilian Fluminense comes second, with eight.

Marcelo Gallardo, a man in demand

River’s 44-year-old manager is a trending topic inside Europe’s group of top teams. The former PSG and Monaco midfielder will be out of contract at River at the end of the year, so he’s considered a smart grab for those in need of solutions for their benches.

But, according to sources close to Gallardo, his mind is set. ESPN journalist Daniel Arcucci revealed that Gallardo “has great admiration for Real Madrid and its structure.” Oscar Ruggeri, a world champion with Argentina in 1986, believes River’s coach has everything it takes to work at Europe’s most prestigious club. “Real is the best, the biggest club of all. And Gallardo is a manager for such a club.”

Before joining River Plate as their coach in 2014, Gallardo worked for a year in Uruguay at Nacional, where he won the league in 2012. With River, the coach couldn’t win the national title in Argentina, but got the club to important continental trophies such as Copa Libertadores (2015, 2018) and Copa Sudamericana (2014).

Zinedine Zidane informed his players that he is going to leave his job as Real Madrid’s head coach this summer, one year before the end of his contract. Could Florentino Perez look to Gallardo as Zizou’s replacement? Bookies have former Juve boss Max Allegri as their favorite at -150, followed by Raul, the legendary ex-striker who’s now in charge of Real’s second team, at +150. Germany’s national team coach Joachin Low is at +1300, with Gallardo nowhere to be found on the favorites list.