Back in October, after more than seven months of inactivity, the first Copa de la Liga Profesional opened on a fitting day. Diego Maradona celebrated his 60th birthday at the helm of Gimnasia as they kicked off the tournament at home to Patronato, but the legend appeared frail and unwell as he was feted in front of the La Plata side's empty stands and less than a month later sent Argentine football into mourning when he passed away.
That Copa swiftly changed its name in tribute to the late Diego, but his presence, and the sense of mourning, still persists as another Copa de la Liga Profesional got underway last weekend. Boca Juniors and Gimnasia, his last club and the side with which he is perhaps closest associated, met on the opening weekend, with another minute of silence necessary: this time it was Santiago García, the Godoy Cruz forward who tragically took his own life at the start of February, who was remembered in the Bombonera.
“It shook us all,” Godoy Cruz coach Sebastián Méndez, who was also Maradona's assistant at Gimnasia prior to his passing, told ESPN when asked about the Uruguayan, known universally as 'El Morro.' “I had a great relationship with him. I like to build a strong bond with the players I coach. I will never understand what happened. I still have the feeling I could have done more, although it has already happened... The pain won't stop and you have to live with that.”
Boca and Gimnasia went on to serve up a thrilling clash, with Edwin Cardona netting a sublime free-kick five minutes from the end to seal a 2-2 draw from the hosts, who had seen their previous lead overturned by the La Plata side. They were not the only Grande, either, to struggle against a club from the capital of Buenos Aires Province.
River Plate looked set to record a straightforward victory over Estudiantes when, already down to ten men, the Pincha went behind to Matías Suárez's goal with more than an hour played. One should never discount teams managed by Ricardo Zielinski, however; ‘El Ruso,’ who infamously sent the Millo down to the B Nacional while at the Belgrano helm, saw his new charges storm back to win 2-1 and mark his debut in La Plata with three points. River, who dominated possession but showed little cutting edge in front of goal, will hope for better fortunes tonight when they welcome Rosario Central to the re-opened Monumental, which had been out of service since before the pandemic hit in order to relay the playing surface.
Zielinski was one of 10 new coaches on display on the opening weekend, and each fared mixed fortunes. San Lorenzo boss Diego Dabove gambled on leaving twin Paraguayan stars Óscar and Ángel Romero out of his starting line-up, and the move paid off as Arsenal were downed 2-1 (although both Romeros finished the game on the pitch). Over in Avellaneda, the outlook was rather less positive: Julio César Falcioni oversaw a 1-0 defeat for Independiente at home to Lanús on his return to the club, almost 15 years after ending his first spell on the bench. Juan Antonio Pizzi fared even worse, losing 2-0 to Banfield on his Racing Club debut in a match where La Academia always looked a distant second-best.
And spare a thought for Fernando Gago, making his very first appearance on the bench under the most difficult of circumstances having retired from Vélez Sarsfield midway through 2020. The scale of the ex-Argentina's midfielder's challenge at Aldosivi was apparent as they fell 2-1 to Méndez's Godoy Cruz in Mar del Plata, with the loss of their teammate seemingly galvanising the Mendoza side, among the worst in the league throughout the last year. “Today we paid tribute to Morro,” an emotional Méndez told his charges after the win, “we played with our hearts. Now, go and cry all that you need to.” It was a fitting homage to the late forward, one of Godoy Cruz's heroes and best performers across the last decade during which they have been a fixture in the top tier of Argentine football.