The wait is over. After almost two months of inaction for the vast majority of Argentina’s top clubs the Superliga returns for a breathless 10-match sprint that will determine its next champion, as well as the teams that will represent the nation in 2020’s Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana. The games will come thick and fast, with the identity of the 2018-2019 winner to be decided as early as the start of April in this truncated, awkward 25-team competition that has for large stretches been overshadowed by continental activity.
One of the teams most complicit in relegating the Superliga to secondary importance now face a losing battle to impose themselves domestically. River Plate have already played twice in 2019, a consequence of the hideous fixture pile-up left by several false starts in their thrilling Copa Libertadores win over Boca Juniors. On the evidence of those two matches, Marcelo Gallardo’s men have a lot of work to do should they hope for a repeat of last year’s heroics.
Twice the Monumental has welcomed River back to the stadium that had last been glimpsed full of confusion and uncertainty following the attack on Boca’s coach and the subsequent suspension and infamous relocation of the second leg. On both occasions, the Millo faithful were left disappointed. River’s slim Superliga hopes were extinguished by back-to-back defeats to Defensa y Justicia and Unión in the space of four days, results that leave them languishing in 12th place overall.
With two games in hand still and a comparatively straightforward home match this weekend against Patronato, it would be foolish to write River off already, but the omens do not look good. The Núñez club continue to trail leaders Racing by a mammoth 17 points, and even the occupants of the final Libertadores qualification spot, Huracán, sit eight points clear after picking up a point in the postponed Clásico de Barrio at the weekend. Worse, River’s failure to replace either inspirational defender Jonathan Maidana nor Atlanta-bound playmaker Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martínez was placed in stark focus over the last week, the team looking pedestrian and predictable going forward and shaky when pressured by less prestigious but welldrilled opposition. The Millonarios will need to improve, and fast, lest they risk missing out on the very same tournament they lifted just over a month ago.
Anguish in Núñez last Saturday was only matched by joy in Florencio Varela. Coached by former assistant to Jorge Sampaoli, Sebastián Beccacese, Defensa y Justicia have been one of the revelations of the Superliga season and started their second half of the campaign proper just three points behind Racing. Defensa’s big priority over the summer transfer period was to conserve their winning team, an objective they have fulfilled, and if they can keep up their form a tantalising last-day showdown against La Academia beckons in Avellaneda that could prove decisive for the Superliga’s fate.
CONSOLIDATION OVER REVOLUTION
What, then, of the leaders themselves? Racing also focused on consolidation rather than revolution over January, maintaining the base of the team that won 11 and drew three of their opening 15 games. In an almost straight swap veteran Banfield forward Darío Cvitanich was drafted in to replace fans’ favourite Gustavo Bou, a hero of the 2014 title-winning team that never looked quite comfortable in this second spell at El Cilindro, while the well-travelled Andrés Ríos – ironically, best known in Argentina for his exploits with Defensa y Justicia – also arrives to add attacking depth.
The team directed by Eduardo Coudet was formidable in 2018 and will look to pick up where they left off in December, but will be wary of nerves and anxiety coming into play in this last effort for the crown, which kicks off on Saturday evening in Mar del Plata away to Aldosivi.
The two other sides still in touch with the leaders face a tough reintroduction to competitive football. Both Atlético Tucumán and Huracán lost key figures over the break, the former seeing the brilliant Luis ‘Pulga’ Rodríguez move to Colón in a shock transfer while the Globo lost both coach Gustavo Alfaro and goalkeeper Marcos Díaz to Boca. The Xeneize, indeed, might still be dark horses for what would be the unlikeliest of title challenges.
Alfaro’s men still trail Racing by 12 points, but with two games in hand could reduce that deficit to (theoretically) three effective points as soon as this weekend with a win over Newell’s and victory for Aldosivi. The biggest enemy the new coach seems set to face, however, might just be his own team.
Boca are still licking their wounds after that incredible Libertadores victory, and there is precious little patience to spare around the Bombonera. A friendly 2-0 defeat at the hands of Unión this month was greeted with near-hysteria, a frenzy only partially calmed by their subsequent win over Aldosivi. Mar del Plata evenings are famously on the chilly side, with at least a jumper recommended even in mid-summer, but Boca’s presence on the coast certainly helped to raise the temperature a few degrees.
Will the Xeneize pull themselves together and fight for a third straight Primera crown? Can Defensa sustain their brilliant form and complete their fairytale? Or will Racing continue their march towards the Superliga, which they have led almost from day one?
Luckily, we will not have to wait long to find out.