RETURN OF THE SUPERCLÁSICO

(Article first featured on Lovely Left Foot 08/08/12)

Some things just belong together. Imagine Ant without Dec, England without penalty shoot-out heartbreak or even buckfast without rampant rates of crime.  It just doesn’t bear thinking about.  And an Argentine season without a Superclásico is no different.

As far as football rivalries go, the world famous sporting clash between Boca Juniors and River Plate is up there with the fiercest and, following River’s relegation to Primera B Nacional last year, it was a sorely missed spectacle from the footballing calendar.  River duly managed to secure automatic promotion and so, after a year’s sojourn and a whole 12 months’ worth of pent up passion and aggression, this year’s bout will be easily one of the most eagerly anticipated fixtures of the Primera division season.

River Plate, as most expected, bounced straight back and finished top of the second division with 73 points.  A walk in the park though, it most certainly wasn’t.  Los Millonarios faced stiff competition and four sides were all fighting it out right up until the very end.  Quilmes eventually bagged the second spot, while the impressive Instituto and Rosario Central were unlucky to miss out, both suffering defeat in the Promocion playoffs. 

Considering they recalled big names such as Fernando Cavenaghi and Chori Dominguez and then pulled off the massive coup of bringing in David Trezeguet at Christmas, they really should have made lighter work of it. Nevertheless, they achieved their main goal and made sure they could write the last year off as a bad dream.

Meanwhile, Boca have been enjoying a fruitful period while their bitter rivals languished, much to their delight, in la B.  They steamrollered their way to the Apertura title in unspectacular but brutally efficient fashion. This was followed six months later by an impressive run to the final of the Copa Libertadores whilst also challenging for the Clausura title up until the last round of games.  Despite both ending in disappointment, it still represents a highly successful twelve months that has seen Boca regain their place as one of the top Argentine sides.  They could still win some silverware in the Copa Argentina final when they face Racing on 7th August.

On the surface, a newly promoted side coming up versus the Apertura winners and Libertadores finalists would seem somewhat of mismatch.  But all that goes out the window when it comes to Boca versus River and, despite their recent contrasting fortunes, things aren’t quite that clear-cut as they first seem.

Though Boca had a fantastic campaign, their season definitely ended on a downer.  It wasn’t just the fact that they came away empty handed from the Libertadores and Clausura but also the announcement that mercurial playmaker and talismanic captain Juan Roman Riquelme is leaving. Though it remains unconfirmed as to what his next step will be – there have been unsuccessful attempts to lure him to various clubs in Brazil, China and the Middle East to name but a few – it has nevertheless caused huge ripples in the Boca camp and raised all manner of questions regarding the future direction of the club: Namely, how can you replace the irreplaceable?

But to presume that Boca will look for a Riquelme mk II is perhaps a little short-sighted.  Riquelme famously had a strained relationship with manager Julio Falcioni, clashing on numerous occasions, as the vulture-faced gaffer preferred a more robust and cautious 4-4-2 formation and therefore might not elect  to directly replace him.  If he does though, Cristian ‘Pochi’ Chavez could be the man charged with inheriting the poison chalice that is the post-Riquelme enganche role. Suerte che!

Boca’s generally underwhelming transfer dealings have not helped appease those questioning the club’s ambition. Out have gone defenders Insaurralde, Roncaglia and Sauro; talented goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa has joined Velez; and forwards Cvitanich, Araujo and village idiot Mouche have all departed too.  Aside from the capture of impressive centre back Guillermo Burdisso – stolen from under the noses of River – there have been few signings to shout about and the squad lacks the depth it boasted last year.

While there will probably be more new faces still to come, a sluggish start could see Falcioni coming under severe pressure and fighting to save his job.  An extremely lacklustre showing in the opening day 3-0 defeat to newly promoted Quilmes will have further sharpened the knives and suggests Boca may well struggle to match last year’s feats.

So how well set up are rivals River to cope with their return to the Primera?  The Nuñez side are determined not just to compete but to challenge and have added some decent additions to a strong squad on paper.  Marcelo Barovero is one of the finest goalkeepers on the continent, while Jonathan Bottinelli and Gabriel Mercado should strengthen their backline.  Ariel Rojas and the imminent arrival of Chino Luna are astute buys too. Manuel Lanzini, returning from his loan at Fluminense, should also feature prominently in what could be a breakthrough season for the youngster.

While it’s a shame that the club haven’t retained the services of Fernando Cavenaghi and Chori Dominguez, much could depend on whether they can keep hold of some of their young stars, namely Lucas Ocampos and Ezequiel Cirigliano. Ocampos, a jet-heeled forward in the mould of Cristiano Ronaldo, and Cirigliano, a tenacious midfield no.5, have been courted by top European clubs and could yet move across the Atlantic this summer.  However, a season of top flight experience could be priceless, not only for their own development but for River’s chances of mounting a decent challenge.

Like Boca, River also crashed to defeat in their first game of the season, losing 2-1 in the grudge match against Belgrano – the side that relegated them last year.  Quite the rude awakening to life back in the Primera.

It’s hard to say at this stage how both sides will fare as there are probably plenty more changes to come and, with only one game gone, it’s impossible to get a real gauge of how each club will fare.  What is certain though, is that when the Superclásico rolls around on October 27th we’ll know a lot more about the two sides’ prospects and it should be a closely fought battle regardless of their two very different past 12 months.

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