Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Superclasico brings River and Boca's slump into sharp focus

The latest instalment of Buenos Aires’ Superclasico did little to give fans of River Plate or Boca Juniors hope of an quick upturn in fortunes for either ofArgentina’s traditional footballing superpowers.

The 1-1 draw was played out with the trademark tenacity and tempo the fixture demands but a point a piece does nobody any favours. At the final whistle both teams still find themselves struggling at the wrong end of the Apertura table.

With the season now over halfway through Boca find themselves six points adrift of surprise leaders Colón. River are a further eight points behind Boca as they plod along with the league’s also-rans.

River appear to be a club in terminal decline. After scooping the 2008 Clausura title the club finished bottom of the table in the next campaign.

Nestor Gorosito managed to steady the ship by guiding them to an eighth place finish in this year’s Clausura only to lose his job less than halfway through the Apertura season.

With results going against Gorosito he stepped down after defeat at San Lorenzo left River with just one win from their opening eight games.

El Millo´s single victory this term came against newly promoted Chacarita Juniors courtesy of a splendid late lob from the resurgent Ariel Ortega.

With Gorosito’s exit after 10 months in the job Leonardo Astrada stepped up for his second spell in charge at El Monumental. Astrada won the 2004 Clausura title in his first managerial stint with the club after a playing career which saw him win the Argentine league 11 times with River.

Favours are difficult to came by for anyone connected with River and Independiente showed no mercy on Astrada in his first game back in charge. Independiente went for the jugular against a team short on confidence and ran out 3-1 winners in River´s own backyard.

Astrada has been charged with rediscovering River’s identity on the pitch but it is no easy task with the squad he has available to him. Although Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega and Matias Almeyda were among El Millo´s best performers in the draw against Boca the trio have a combined age of 103-years-old and cannot be expected to go on forever.

The standout prospect at the club is Diego Buonanotte who won both a penalty and the freekick which Gallardo converted in the Superclasico. The latest club to show an interest in Buonanotte is Juventus and a much needed payday for River maybe coming soon.

The trouble is that with so many aging heads at the club further readymade replacements are thin on the ground.

The production line which has developed Radamel Falcao, Alexis Sánchez, Gonzalo Higuaín, Javier Mascherano and Lucho González in recent years is simply no longer the deep well of talent it once was.

One bright spark is 17-year-old stocky support striker Daniel Villalba. The player has two goals in six appearances for River and is currently starring for Argentina in the under-17 World Cup. It is far too early in his career however for Villalba to be burdened with the kind of pressure currently reverberating around El Monumental.

If problems on the pitch were not enough there is also an unpleasant bun fight being played out in the media between favourite sons Enzo Francescoli and Daniel Passarella as the club’s Presidential elections approach.

Francescoli has slammed Presidential candidate Passarella for walking out on Uruguay whilst managing the nation back in 2001. Passarella goes up against other hopefuls Rodolfo D’Onofrio, Hugo Santilli, Antonio Caselli as well as the unpopular current River President José María Aguilar for the post in December.

One of these men will have their work cut out if they are to return River to their former glory and start adding to the club’s 33 Argentine league titles.

The signs that this season was not going to be plain sailing for River or Boca was apparant very early on. Both club’s crashed out of the Copa Sudamericana in the first round after receiving their last ever qualification to the tournament through invitation.

Limp defeats for River and Boca by Lanús and Vélez Sársfield respectively fully supported the withdrawal of automatic entry for the two big boys to South America’s second most prestigious club tournament.

It is however the Copa Libertadores that all the teams in South America want to win and in the last decade it has been a happy hunting ground for Boca.

The self styled Manchester United of South America have appeared in five Copa Libertadores finals in the last ten years, winning on four occasions.

Before the Superclasico Boca Juniors president Jorge Amor Ameal dangled a carrot in front of his team in the shape of US$500,000 bonus for the squad on qualifying for the next edition of the Copa Libertadores.

As with Europe´s top clubs Boca Juniors budget on appearing in the top competitions and banking the revenue that a good run generates. Boca´s yearly outgoings of US$7,000,000 are based on the club reaching the last eight of the Copa Libertadores at the very least every year.

After the Superclasico however they lie seven points behind San Lorenzo who hold the last qualification place for next year´s edition of the tournament. They have eight games left in the Apertura to make up this deficit.

Right now there are some sparks of optimism around La Bombonera as Boca went into their derby with River having strung together three consecutive league wins. This upturn in form has seen Juan Román Riquelme on top of his game. The touch to setup Martin Palermo for the equaliser against River was a piece of skill that only he alone could pull off.

With Palermo chipping in with his usual share of goals there is a glimmer of hope for Los Xeneizes picking up the points needed and showing up in next year’s Copa Liberadores.

Boca head coach Alfio Basile had offered his resignation earlier in the season but it was refused by the club and he has capitalised on the faith that has been bestowed on him.

Basile knows though that failure to get the club up the league and into the Copa Libertadores will ultimately put an end to his second spell in charge at La Bombonera.

Like their rivals across the city Boca also have an overreliance on aging heads. The average age of their staring XI for the Superclasico was just over 29-years-old and the talented youngsters are just not there at the moment.

River and Boca are unashamedly selling clubs and rely on transfer income to stay afloat. Pre-season saw Rodrigo Palacio move from Boca to Genoa and Radamel Falcao from River to Porto.

A balance needs to be struck at both clubs between continuing to sell their best players while remaining competitive enough to met the demands of their fans as well as their bank managers.

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