Clausura 2012 Review

(Article first featured on Own Goal Podcast 03/07/12)

In a thrilling final day of drama, the Argentinian Clausura reached its climax in exciting and unpredictable fashion that has typified the entire season.  With seven games being played simultaneously, 3 sides were still in the title hunt while six were battling it out to avoid relegation. One side, Tigre, were bizarrely involved in both!  This rollercoaster of emotion almost makes Manchester City’s injury time winner seem like a mere stroll in the park.

Much like Montpellier’s terrific triumph in France, it has also been very much the year of the underdog with the continental distractions of the Copa Libertadores taking priority for some of the usual title favourites and thus allowing a host of perhaps more unlikely candidates a shot at the title.

Arsenal de Sarandi showed the red half of North London how it’s done with the first league win in their history.  A spectacular run of 6 wins from their last 7 games saw them grab their maiden title, sealing it with a 1-0 win against Belgrano.  Although an unpopular club due to links to AFA boss Julio Grondona and a tiny fanbase, they played some decent football over the campaign.  Their young centre back pairing of Lisandro Lopez and Guillermo Burdisso was solid while the likes of Carlos Carbonero and Luciano Leguizamon provided their main attacking thrust.

Tigre though almost provided the fairytale story of the season as they looked to escape relegation and challenge for the title at the same time.  Unfortunately the title evaded them after a 2-2 draw with Independiente but the fact they avoided relegation from a seemingly untenable position at the start of the season was miraculous and should be regarded as a huge success.  In short, due to a terrible 09/10 campaign, their average point score meant they were in the direct relegation position and odds on to go down but managed to make up not just a 9 point gap on nearest rivals San Lorenzo but overtake Banfield, who had a 22 point buffer, and avoid relegation completely.  Enormous credit should go to young manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena and his squad.

Apertura champions Boca could only manage 4th but given their run to the Copa Libertadores final, the fact they were challenging for the elusive double right up until the last day represents a good season.  Velez also suffered from having to juggle the league with the Libertadores – where they reached the quarters, only to go out to Santos – but nevertheless a 3rd place finish also shows the strength and depth of their talented squad.

Among the other surprise packages were Newell’s and All Boys.  Newell’s, under ex-Paraguay boss Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, were leading the league at the half was point, eventually finishing 6th.  Certainly a big improvement considering they finished 19th and 18th in the previous short tournaments and they will have to keep up that good form if they are to avoid the perils of relegation next year.  Meanwhile All Boys 5th place finish – level on points with Boca and Velez – was based on a rugged and robust defence that only conceded 13 all year.

At the other end of the table, Olimpo and Banfield were directly relegated after appalling campaigns.  Banfield seemed all but safe at the beginning of the season and, as previously mentioned, had a massive 22 point advantage over Tigre but still contrived to let it slip.  Staggering considering they had a 73 point season (including an Apertura title in 2009) as part of their average!

Tigre’s great form meant that San Lorenzo were dragged into the relegation battle.  However, a 3-1 victory over San Martin on the final day saw San Lorenzo given the opportunity to save themselves via the relegation playoff (and a certain ginger ball boy!), while also ensuring that San Martin suffered the same fate.  As it turned out, San Lorenzo beat Instituto and San Martin drew 0-0 twice against Rosario Central, thus saving both Primera sides.  Los Cuervos boss Caruso Lombardi lived up to his firefighter reputation – although most of the season he’d been more of a street fighter – and the altogether more thoughtful Facundo Sava (of Fulham fame) did well in his first job.  San Martin’s survival meant that all four promoted sides impressively avoided relegation.

While Instituto and Rosario Central suffered bitter disappointment, Quilmes and fallen giants River Plate secured promotion back to the Primera after a hard fought Nacional B campaign that saw the top 4 constantly swap positions.  River, with the likes of Trezeguet and Cavenaghi, will be hoping to make a big impact upon their return and the Primera will be all the better for their presence.

Elsewhere, there were disappointing seasons for the Avellaneda giants Racing and Independiente.  Racing in particular, after finishing as runners up in the Apertura, were dogged by in-fighting – most notably Teo Gutierrez pulling a gun on his teammates – and the appointment of the antiquated Coco Basile unsurprisingly didn’t come off.  With Zubeldia at the helm and a massive overhaul of personnel to come, La Acade will be hoping for better times.  Independiente didn’t fare much better, finishing just one place higher in 16th and may be embroiled in a relegation battle next season.  However, they did serve up arguably the game of the season: a 5-4 victory over Boca in the Bombonera.

Godoy Cruz were another outfit who really disappointed as well.  Gone are the days of the free-scoring side that regularly finished high up the table and twice qualifying for the Libertadores.  Expect the likes of Diego Villar and Ruben Ramirez to depart.  Lanus were inconsistent but finised midtable along with the likes of Argentinos Jnrs and Colon who both had solid, if not spectacular, campaigns.

There was no dream send-off for the retiring Juan Sebastian Veron.  Despite having 10 of the squad that won the Libertadores in 2009, Estudiantes, after a bright start, faded and didn’t give La Brujita a last trophy in what has nevertheless been a glittering career.  Other goodbyes included ex-Barca defender Gaby Milito and Colon striker and journeyman Esteban ‘Bichi’ Fuertes.

Ahead of the new season there will undoubtedly be a flurry of transfer activity which makes it nigh on impossible to make informed predictions at this stage but hopefully it lives up to the same levels of excitement and drama as this Clausura.  The league format will actually change to a full 38-game calendar which will bring a different dynamic.  Although Inicial and Final (a loosely disguised change from the Apertura and Clausura) winners will still remain, meeting in a playoff to decide the overall winner, hopefully long term thinking will be encouraged.  Either way, the return of River and thus the Superclasicos will be one added reason to start getting exciting about next season.