The Boys are back in town

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 20/04/12)

At the halfway stage of the Clausura there are some familiar faces at the top end of the Argentinian Primera Division.  Boca currently sit in first place with 20 points but don’t look the formidable machine that went unbeaten in the Apertura, having already lost twice and conceded four more than last term.  Vélez are close behind with 19 points while Arsenal and Estudiantes are still in contention, despite the latter’s recent slump in form.

However, the biggest surprise package has come in the form of a rejuvenated Newell’s Old Boys, who are second and level on points with Boca after 10 games. 

The side from Rosario are one of Argentina’s most historic clubs although most people will probably know them best as Lionel Messi’s original stomping ground pre-Barcelona.  Founded in 1903, they were named after Isaac Newell – an Englishman who directed an Anglican school in the city – and adopted the red and black colours, taken from the English and German flags (Newell’s wife was German).  As well as Messi, they have also produced plenty of other players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Jorge Valdano and Walter Samuel to name but a few, while they can also claim to be one of the six teams that Diego Maradona has played for, even if it was just five times in 1993.

La Lepra – a nickname they inherited after playing a charity game for those infected with leprosy – haven’t been experiencing the best of times in recent years though.  They endured a torrid 2011, in which they finished 19th in the Clausura and 18th in the Apertura respectively, leading to many having them down as relegation fodder ahead of the current campaign.  Yet they have proved the doubters wrong after notching an impressive six wins (one more than they managed all last year) from their first ten games and now could now be an outside bet for the title.

So what has changed?  The most notable factor has been the arrival of new manager and Newell’s legend Gerardo Martino.  Better known as Tata, Martino holds the all-time appearance record, having turned out 505 times for Newell’s, and was voted best ever player by fans in a poll conducted for their centenary.  He played during the club’s most successful period, winning the Primera three times and was twice a beaten finalist in the Libertadores.  He even has a stand named after him.

Since his appointment at the beginning of the year, the immensely popular figure has turned the disjointed side into a well organised unit brimming with confidence and purpose.  Much like his Paraguay team that reached the World Cup quarter-finals and drew its way to the Copa America final, a hallmark of Martino’s side is its defensively solidity and Newell’s boast the best defensive record in the league, having conceded just six times.  As Boca and Racing demonstrated last season, a watertight backline is vital to a decent title challenge.

Deprived of any form of transfer budget, Martino has managed to extract the best out of virtually the same group of players and has shown that he is not afraid to put his faith in younger players.  A prime example has been Maximiliano Urruti, one of the revelations of the season, after Martino promoted him from the reserves.  Urruti’s five goals have played a big part in Newell’s revival and they have already equalled the 13 goals they scored in the entire Apertura.  While they didn’t concede too many in the Apertura, this killer instinct in front of goal has seen Tata’s men turn games they would have drawn (13 last season) into victories.

While they chase their first league title since 2004, just as big a motivation to accrue as many points as possible will be the threat of relegation that might face them next season.  As things currently stand they are in no danger of going down this season but will begin the 2012/13 campaign in the promedios when their points total for 09/10 is gone.  This bizarre scenario of battling for the title as well as trying to avoid the drop can be seen in the similar but distinctly starker situation of Tigre, when after five games they were top of the table and simultaneously in the relegation zone.  Their 2-1 win over Boca means they are only three points off the top themselves, sitting in fifth, but survival remains their number one priority.

Potential promedio preoccupations aside, Tata Martino’s Newell’s Old Boys have started brightly and are breathing life into what is a more tightly contested Primera Division title race.  The club’s vociferous fans may allow themselves to dream of a potential title and hope that this spells the start of a promising new chapter in their long and illustrious history.