It is fair to say that when Guillermo Barros Schelotto ended his two-year tenure at the helm of Boca Juniors, in the aftermath of Copa Libertadores defeat to arch-rivals River Plate, few Xeneize fans mourned his departure. The coach led his charges to back-to-back Superliga titles to ensure national dominance but, like all the trainers who have come and gone since Boca’s last Libertadores win in 2007, failure to deliver success at a continental level ultimately made his position untenable and left the faithful hungry for an injection of new blood.
Replacement Gustavo Alfaro has been in the job for barely two months and is already becoming acutely aware of the challenge ahead. If he cannot turn around Boca’s fortunes, the ex-Huracán man may soon find himself following Barros Schelotto’s lead and seeking employment elsewhere, chewed up by the intensely demanding Bombonera meat-grinder.
The problems faced by Alfaro were put into sharp focus on Wednesday evening. A 2-1 defeat at home to Atlético Tucumán all but extinguished Boca’s faint hopes of netting a third straight title, a feat achieved only by River (in short six-month tournaments) and Racing Club (in long tournaments) since the advent of the professional era.
Mathematically at least the Xeneize are not yet out of the race; but with just six games to go in the season and the club trailing joint-leaders Racing and Defensa y Justicia by 10 points, the outlook is bleak.
Boca swooped for Alfaro in the hope that he could reproduce the order and discipline that has been such a hallmark of his teams over the years. Early results, however, have been underwhelming. A 1-1 draw against Newell’s Old Boys to start 2019 was followed by victories over San Martín de San Juan, Godoy Cruz and Lanús and a further share of the points away to Belgrano. A win-rate of 50 per cent is far below Xeneize expectations and defeat to the likes of Atlético Tucumán in Boca’s own backyard wholly unacceptable. That shaky start has not helped matters – but then Alfaro was always going to be under pressure.
A rather unjust division reigns in Argentine football. There are those considered ‘Big Club’ players and managers, and those deemed adequate only for ‘small clubs.’ Alfaro has for most of his career fallen in the second category. After a short playing career he did the rounds across the country, taking in spells at the likes of Rafaela (twice), Patronato, Quilmes (twice) and Olimpo. Attempts to climb the ladder with more prestigious institutions ended in disaster: both San Lorenzo and Rosario Central gave Alfaro his marching orders having completed little more than half a year in the hotseat.
There have been successes along the way, too. In a total of six years at Arsenal de Sarandí over two separate stints the coach delivered their first trophy in history in the shape of the 2007 Copa Sudamericana, and followed that up with a maiden league title in the 2012 Clausura for the side formed and coddled by the infamous Julio Grondona as well as Copa Argentina and Supercopa triumphs. Curiously enough, no less than four former Arsenal players from the Alfaro period are there : Esteban Andrada and Darío Benedetto have been joined by defender Lisandro López and midfield dynamo Iván Marcone since he took over. His Huracán team subsequently formed a reputation for hard, pragmatic play on a strict budget, but over the years the impression of Alfaro is of a journeyman slogger who has failed to step up to the big leagues when handed the chance.
That background means that Alfaro will be given even less time to make his name than Barros Schelotto, who while possessing far less coaching experience when taking over had the luxury of his reputation as one of Boca’s favourite sons, thanks to the part played during the club’s glory days of the early 2000s. There will be no time to settle, no tolerance of poor results. This means the trainer will have to make tough decisions, most notably concerning the flagging Carlos Tevez.
Once a star, Tevez is now undeniably inferior to his rival for a first-team spot, Mauro Zárate, but the pair have nevertheless been alternating starting duties so far in 2019. He may be a legend, but Alfaro is doing himself no favours in indulging the forward’s wishes – and that has shown in the games so far, with Boca looking far more dangerous going forward when Zárate enters the action.
Tomorrow brings a potentially decisive clash for Boca and their new coach. Defeat against Defensa y Justicia in Florencio Varela would be a mortal blow not just for the Xeneize’s nearmoribund title aspirations but also for the coach who insists the fight is not yet over. “As long as the numbers are on our side we will keep fighting,” Alfaro stated defiantly in the muted Bombonera on Wednesday.
The numbers are against him, however, and if an improvement is not forthcoming another change could be in the air sooner rather than later.