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LATIN AMERICA | 26-01-2023 16:25

Racing hope to exploit Boca, River turbulence as top-flight football returns

Uncertainty at Boca and River means that for a change, one of the touted favourites comes from outside the omnipresent Superclásico duo: Fernando Gago’s Racing Club.

The suffocating heat that continues to plague Buenos Aires and most of Argentina might suggest otherwise, but the summer break is already behind us, at least in footballing terms. This weekend the Liga Profesional de Fútbol starts up anew, with no fewer than 28 hopefuls battling for the crown lifted by Boca Juniors last year on the eve of the World Cup.

Boca, though, paradoxically enough are hardly buoyed by that recent triumph. The league was a useful feather in the cap for rookie coach Hugo Ibarra and the fifth title harvested by Juan Román Riquelme in his three years as vice-president/all-knowing football guru at the Bombonera, but it was followed by a trio of defeats to keep the Xeneize faithful's celebrations decidedly muted.

First, Patronato shocked the nation by downing the giants in the Copa Argentina semi-finals, on their way to historic victory in the competition. Then, back-to-back losses to Racing Club in the Trofeo de Campeones and last Saturday's Supercopa in Abu Dhabi only upped the pressure on Boca going into this new campaign. The loss of Agustín Rossi – who jumped ship in Madrid on the way back from that match in a dramatic, not to mention farcical twist to sign for Cristiano Ronaldo's Al-Nassr (as we're now contractually obliged to call them) and a quiet transfer window further ups the ante at the Bombonera, but then it would hardly be Boca if it did not feel that a crisis were approaching inexorably on the horizon.

That rather turbulent situation, added to the uncertainty faced by River Plate as they embark on their first season without Marcelo Gallardo on the bench for the best part of nine years, means that for a change one of the touted favourites comes from outside the omnipresent Superclásico duo. While one may argue about the validity of the two cups that now adorn Racing's mantelpiece - and many have, vehemently and exhaustively this past week – that should take nothing away from Fernando Gago on the Academia bench.

No team won more games in 2022 than the Avellaneda side, and were it not for the penalty defeat to Boca in the Copa and that inexplicable meltdown on the final day of the Liga season they might well have claimed those trophies too. Certainly, there seems no lack of steel now around Racing: both 'finals' were wrested from Boca with late winners having gone down to an early goal, and if nothing else the additions of the club's prodigal son Maxi Moralez and veteran Peru warhorse Paolo Guerrero will make Gago's team more fascinating to watch than ever.

The three aforementioned Grandes, who filled last year's podium, will likely be in the title discussion once more thanks in part to one seemingly mundane but crucial virtue. In decent economic and sporting health and relatively free of debt, neither Boca nor Racing nor River have been obliged to make sweeping changes to their squads over the summer. That is a stability most of the league can only dream of.

Take Huracán and Atlético Tucumán, fourth and fifth in 2022 behind the trio. Huracán have welcomed 10 new faces in January and released the same number so far, including sparkling forward Franco Cristaldo. The case of Atlético is even more severe, having lost no fewer than 11 players this summer, a figure that could yet climb higher. That same scenario is played out across almost every other team in the top flight, with a special mention for the wheeler-dealer kings Central Córdoba, who have signed 18 new recruits and will be almost unrecognisable from the side that finished the last campaign in fine form. There will not be much time for them to find their feet before River visit on the opening day, though the famously searing January heat in Santiago del Estero is an extra weapon for the hosts even when kick-off is scheduled late into the evening.

And after all, one of the things most beloved of the much maligned Argentine top flight is that, like Atlético Tucumán last term, all that is needed is for a few transfers to hit the ground running and the stars to align to mount a serious title challenge. San Lorenzo enjoyed a mini-renaissance last year once Rubén Insúa took over; can they pick up where they left off to restore the club to the top of the table? Will Martín Demichelis assume Gallardo's mantle and keep up the winning tradition? Will Independiente's shrewd transfer dealings under the shadow of financial crisis make them a contender again? Or can a promising young squad lift Rosario Central out of the basement and into the fight? 

The possibilities are endless, and combine to ensure what will be another fascinating Liga campaign.

 

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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