Three weeks is a long time in the Liga Profesional de Fútbol. When this writer departed for a well-earned holiday at the end of August the championship looked all set up to yield a straight fight to the finish between the unlikely duo of Atlético Tucumán and Gimnasia, with River Plate perhaps best-placed to make a late run at the summit.
It was some surprise, then, that upon returning to Argentine soil he found that a new contender had emerged. Boca Juniors should never, ever be ruled out of the running when a league title is on the line and they have proved as much by tearing up the table just when it most counts.
Having gone over 300 minutes without scoring a goal last month the Xeneize roared back to form with five consecutive triumphs, including a crucial 2-1 win over Atlético to close in at the top and victory in the Superclásico courtesy of a goal from Darío Benedetto to beat out their arch-rivals 1-0. The close-run nature of those games is no coincidence. All five games in that run were decided by a solitary strike, and late on too: five winners in the last half-hour of play, three within the final five minutes.
Monday's dour 0-0 draw with Huracán broke up that rhythm somewhat but Hugo Ibarra's men are still well within touch of the top. Boca trail Atlético by just two points with seven games still to go and will lead the Liga Profesional for at least 48 hours should they get past Godoy Cruz in Mendoza on Friday. What just a month ago looked an outside bet now feels a real possibility: in spite of all their strife on and off the field, Boca could lift their second title of 2022 and their fifth league crown in the last seven years.
Not that they should be expecting a simple outing this week. The need to keep the Liga running through September's international break hurts the Xeneize more than any team in the top flight and robs them of three key players, while another seven first-teamers have fallen victim to injury. Ibarra led the club's reserve ranks prior to taking over from Sebastián Battaglia earlier this year and now must call on many of those youngsters at senior level, unfamiliar names like Lautaro Di Lollo, Nahuel Genez, Brandon Cortes and Maxi Zalazar thrust into the spotlight at a pivotal moment in the season.
For now though the coach is content to enjoy this surprise upturn in fortunes without fretting too much on the ultimate objective. “If we sit down and think, a month ago nobody would have believed Boca would be here,” he explained following the draw against Huracán. “We are fighting and we know the team is focused. We have worked very hard to achieve this current situation.”
Ibarra is wise to keep his feet on the ground. Battaglia's short-lived Bombonera reign confirmed two golden rules at Boca: thrilling performances are not necessary to lift trophies, and trophies are not enough to preserve employment. The first was aptly demonstrated with victories in both the Copa Argentina and Copa Liga Profesional within the space of six months, neither of which exactly saw the Xeneize shine on the pitch and outplay their opponents on the way to glory; the second came into brutal effect when the club favourite was axed in the wake of an unfortunate penalty exit from the Libertadores at the hands of Corinthians.
The Boca roller-coaster is not for the faint-hearted and if anyone acknowledges that it is Ibarra, who after nine years as a player at the Bombonera and now two on the bench with the reserves and first team knows only constant success in every competition will suffice. All looks rosy now, after all – but let us see first what the next three weeks bring us before leaping to any more hasty conclusions over the fate of the title.