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SPORTS | 08-04-2022 23:40

Gago takes Racing from strength to strength – and the top of the table

Coach’s success in Avellaneda will heighten the clamour for him to take over at Boca should results continue to disappoint at La Bombonera in the coming months.

It has been another eventful week in the world of Argentine football. Steve Hodge caused a big stir when the former England defender put his Diego Maradona shirt, swapped with him following the infamous 1986 World Cup quarter-final, up for auction at Sotheby's for an estimated £4 million.

The Boca Juniors emotional pendulum, meanwhile, took another dramatic swing back from euphoria to outrage as the Xeneize kicked off in the Copa Libertadores with defeat to Deportivo Cali, while River Plate's opener in Lima against Alianza almost did not go ahead at all due to the latest bout of political unrest in Peru and a government-imposed curfew, lifted just in time for the Millonario to prevail 1-0. That clash was not without incident, though, as defender Robert Rojas suffered a horrifying double leg fracture, an injury inflicted by Aldair Rodríguez's criminal tackle which will keep the Paraguayan out for months. If that were not enough, the local game also received its first taste of VAR technology, which still has a few kinks to work out – Lucas Pratto's late strike for Vélez Sarsfield took almost 10 minutes to verify when referee Andrés Merlos' video feed remained stubbornly frozen at the side of the pitch.

It was also a week to remember for the Copa Liga Profesional's surprise package. On Saturday Racing Club paid a triple tribute: to the fallen in the 1982 Malvinas war; to late 1967 Intercontinental Cup hero Juan Carlos 'Chango' Cárdenas; and to Lisandro López, who returned to El Cilindro with his new Sarmiento de Junin team-mates. It proved a bittersweet afternoon for López, as Racing romped to a 4-1 victory which keeps them unbeaten and firmly on top of Group A with eight games played of this first stage.

This has been quite the turnaround for the Avellaneda club. In 2021 Racing's play oscillated between the deathly dull, albeit occasionally effective, under Juan Antonio Pizzi to outright catastrophic when Claudio Úbeda took the reins. The appointment of Fernando Gago towards the end of the year did little to stop the rot and it seemed just a matter of time before the ex-Boca Juniors midfield ace, fresh off an underwhelming coaching debut with Aldosivi, would be once more among the ranks of the unemployed.

Gago, however, had hinted during his Aldosivi stint that he was made of sterner stuff, and he has finally managed to transmit his favoured high-octane, possession and chance-heavy playing style through to the ranks of La Academia. Despite losing his former Boca team-mate and star signing Edwin Cardona early in the season to injury Racing have gone from strength to strength, notching their sixth consecutive victory on Thursday at the expense of Uruguay's River Plate in the Copa Sudamericana and boasting Argentina's most potent attack – with 18 Copa Liga Profesional goals to date they have outgunned even goal-friendly River so far.

The coach, of course, knows all too well how fickle a beast the Argentine game can be, and is reluctant to label his side title contenders. “I don't know if we're challengers. We're here to compete,” he told reporters following March's thrilling late clásico victory over Independiente. “We need to compete in every game. Sometimes it'll go our way.” On current form, though, Racing look set to go a long way, and it would not be a surprise at this point to see them fighting for the crown in a few months – while Gago's success, to the consternation of everyone in the blue-and-white half of Avellaneda, will only heighten the clamour for him to take over at Boca should results continue to disappoint at La Bombonera in the coming months.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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