Tigre: The Great Escape

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 29/06/12)

Tigre completed a miraculous recovery to avoid the drop in a tense final day of the Argentinian Clausura this weekend.  Due to the relegation system – based on average points over the past three years – Tigre began the season in an almost unsalvageable position, but managed to haul themselves to safety, ensuring top flight status with a late draw against Independiente on Sunday and completing what will go down as one of the greatest footballing escapes in recent history.

A quick glance at the Primera Division league table would leave most people scratching their heads as to why the side from northern Buenos Aires were involved in a relegation scrap at all. 

Going into the last round of fixtures, Tigre were level on 35 points with Arsenal de Sarandi at the top of the table and just one game away from being crowned champions for the first time in their history.  Thus the scene was set for an utterly enthralling conclusion to the season in which a team was simultaneously battling relegation and challenging for the title.

Thanks to a miserable points tally of 32 during the 2009/10 campaign, Tigre’s average point score at the beginning of the 2011/12 had dropped to a measly 1.093 leaving them facing the distinct possibility of relegation.  Knowing they had nothing to lose they threw caution to the wind in order to win as many games as possible, collecting a reasonable 27 points and finishing 7th in the 2011 Apertura.  But decent performances from the four newly promoted sides – Belgrano, Rafaela, San Martin and Union – meant that Tigre still sat 19th in the ‘promedio’ (the relegation table) with an average of 1.147, needing a miracle in the Clausura if they were to survive.

Nevertheless, their Apertura performances and never-say-die attitude had given them a glimmer of hope.  One of the five ‘grandes’, San Lorenzo, had also endured a torrid Apertura amassing just 19 points and, with an average of 1.242, it looked as if they might suffer the same fate that befell fellow porteño giants River Plate the year before if they didn’t pull up their socks fast.  Tigre therefore needed to make up a whole 9 points on San Lorenzo if they were to catch them up and climb out of the direct relegation position.  This would still have left them in the relegation zone but it would at least have given them a chance to save themselves via the play-offs.  A tall order but not an insurmountable one for a team beginning to believe.

What followed has been one of the fairy-tale stories of the season.  Under the guidance of young manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena in his maiden season, Tigre went on a fantastic run beating the likes of Boca, Velez and Lanus along the way, with el Matador also playing some of the most attractive football, managing to combine style and verve with defensive solidarity not often seen in the Primera Division.

As well as mounting an unexpected title challenge, they looked as if they would achieve their principal aim of guaranteeing their top flight status.  A run of ten games unbeaten not only saw them catch and leapfrog San Lorenzo but also overtake Banfield, catapulting them out of the relegation places completely.  A fantastic achievement that was hardly imaginable at the turn of the year.

Therefore going into the final game, Tigre were in the odd situation of challenging for the title with Arsenal and Boca and fighting it out with five other sides still fighting it out to avoid relegation at the same time.

In terms of the title, if Tigre needed to better Arsenal’s result in order to avoid a one-off playoff at a neutral venue, while if they both drew and Boca won it would have forced a three-way round-robin to decide the winner.  Meanwhile in the relegation battle, even if Tigre beat Independiente the combination of a Rafaela win and San Martin getting at least a draw would have seen them sucked back into the relegation play-off.  Furthermore, a Tigre draw, an Arsenal loss, a Boca loss or draw plus favourable results for Rafaela and San Martin would have seen Tigre as both champions and in the relegation zone. Got all that? Phew…

What transpired in a day of twists and turns was Tigre drawing 2-2 with Independiente, Arsenal beating Belgrano 1-0 and Boca losing to All Boys, handing Arsenal their first title.  Meanwhile at the other end, Rafaela beat Godoy Cruz 3-1 putting the pressure on but a San Lorenzo win against San Martin 3-1 meant that Tigre were safe by the skin of their teeth.  San Lorenzo’s win also saw them avoid direction relegation, consigning the hapless Banfield to the Primera B, and sets up a tie against Instituto de Cordoba in the play-offs, while San Martin will meet Rosario Central. 

So what has been behind Tigre’s revival?  As well as the aforementioned nothing-to-lose mentality, much credit must go to the influence of the talented Arruabarrena who has drawn the best out of his players.  The goals of Carlos Luna, nicknamed ‘el Chino’ for his oriental looks, who leads the top scorer charts with 12 have been instrumental.  A particular highlight was his fantastic hat-trick, including a bicycle kick against fellow over-achievers Newells in a 3-1 win.  The attacking talent of the exciting Diego ‘Cachete’ Morales and classy Roman Martinez have lit up many games, while Ezequiel ‘Lechuga’ Maggiolo has weighed in with some important goals too.  On the defensive side of things, tough tackling Diego Castaño has done the dirty work to allow the forward players to shine and Mariano Echeverria has been at the heart of a defence that has conceded just 15.

While the more cynical have pointed to Tigre’s political links – they have strong links to the current mayor of Tigre, Sergio Massa – as a source of their success, they have certainly also been aided by the slip ups of their relegation rivals.  San Lorenzo have improved, with Julio Buffarini particularly impressive, but it still remains to be seen whether manager Ricardo Caruso Lombardi can live up to his fire-fighter reputation, having attracted more attention for his street-fighting

Banfield, who have been absolutely awful, looked to be pretty much safe at the start of the season but let a whopping 22 point advantage over Tigre slip which has sent them packing just 3 years after their 2009 Apertura win.

Although Tigre were unable to pull off the spectacular double of simultaneously beating the drop and winning the league, their performances over the last year mean that the very least they deserved was to remain in the top flight and provided a nervy, dramatic and thoroughly engrossing finish to a bizarre yet brilliant Clausura season.