That season we went on an unbeaten run of 11 matches, winning the league with record points and number of wins. And with a group of players who didn’t know me, but backed me as a manager.
They saw that I believed in my own idea of football.
It was a very different idea to what they were used to in Argentina. I brought a wholly European method of just working with the ball in tight spaces. I introduced it gradually, and little by little they started to like it.
The team achieved a fantastic level of football that meant we won the first international trophy in the club’s history. But it was at River Plate, where we won the league and reached the final of the Copa Sudamericana, that I think my name really grew internationally.
When I finished there I was offered me a great contract – financially – in Mexico.
But, after I really considered it, I said no. I knew it would have been really hard as a manager to go from Mexico to Europe. So, with a much smaller financial offer – less than half of what was I was being offered in Mexico – I made my decision.
“We were better than Arsenal in that tie. But in the second leg we missed a penalty in the last minute and that was it. It hurt a lot”
I came to Villarreal. And, well, I think it was a really good decision because I came to an extraordinary club.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best clubs in terms of organisation: a chairman who understands the vision clearly and has the capital to make the club grow. And a director of football who, apart from a few exceptions, had great dialogue with players coming into the club.
If I had told the club then that over the next five years we were going to finish as runners-up in the Spanish league, qualify for Europe every year and reach the Champions League semi finals, they would have put me away in the madhouse.
But I asked the players to step up and, gradually, they understood.
Personally, those five years helped me to understand European football really well. Painfully well, at times.