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SPORTS | 09-02-2024 08:56

Newell's, Godoy Cruz make perfect start to Copa de la Liga

The nation's top teams are battling through the heat to complete three rounds of Copa de la Liga fixtures in little more than 10 days.

Temperatures in Buenos Aires and across Argentina might still be in that uncomfortable meteorological range between scalding and hellish, but that has not stopped the action in the Copa de la Liga (mandated regular drinks breaks aside). The nation's top teams have already battled through the heat to complete three rounds of fixtures in little more than 10 days, and with this weekend's action, the Copa group stages will already be almost a third of the way towards completion in what feels like a blink of an eye.

While games have been in plentiful supply, goals have admittedly been rather hard to come by. The opening round saw them 'fly' in at a pitiful rate of 1.21 a game, and though things have picked up slightly since that slow start the average still lies appreciably south of the two-goal mark. Indeed, after three matches no fewer than four teams – Deportivo Riestra, Banfield, Tigre and Central Córdoba – had failed to even once trouble the scorers, while those patient to sit through Estudiantes and Unión's opening fixtures would have seen just four strikes in 540 minutes of action, a substantial investment equivalent to sitting through the first two Lord of the Rings films almost in their entirety. Which is the better use of one's precious leisure time, we will leave up to the reader.

Still, the general lack of goalmouth action aside, it has not been all stifled yawns and pointed glances at watches. Carlos Tevez continued his solid work at Independiente towards the end of 2023 by overseeing two successive 1-0 away wins to kick off the Copa, before seeing Gimnasia turn the table on el Rojo in their first outing in front of their expectant fans (football is cruel like that sometimes). Independiente therefore forfeited their perfect record, a distinction only Newell's Old Boys and Godoy Cruz carry into the fourth round: the former inspired by the always dreamy Ever Banega, whose exquisite assist made the difference to beat Belgrano; while the Mendoza side continue to thrive in club idol Daniel Oldrá's 13th (!) spell as coach.

The third round also proved fruitful for the two halves of the Superclásico rivalry. After two draws Boca Juniors finally recorded their maiden victory under Diego Martínez, easing past hapless Tigre thanks to goals from Miguel Merentiel and Diego Benedetto. River Plate, meanwhile, romped to a 5-0 thrashing of Vélez, with Miguel Borja netting three times and Nicolás Fonseca, one of the Millo's few summer signings, responding to early criticism with a stellar performance in midfield. Both giants look set to be in the thick of the play-off race, and will only get stronger towards the end of February when their sizeable Argentina U23 contingents return from Pre-Olympic duty in Venezuela.

Let us now return to Mendoza, where Independiente Rivadavia are also doing the province proud. In stark contrast to fellow promoted side Riestra, the Lepra have taken the Copa by storm, winning two of their opening three games to fight at the summit of Group A. The club may also receive an unexpected boost thanks to one of the more curious football stories of the summer.

Before the start of 2024, the name Ezequiel Ham was vaguely familiar to fans as the unfortunate victim of a horror tackle from Tevez that left him with a triple fracture to his right leg. That injury and a subsequent cruciate ligament tear threatened to end his career entirely, but the ex-Argentinos youngster battled back and formed a key part of Independiente's successful Primera Nacional campaign last year. It also put him in the sights of Syria, for whom he is qualified to play through a grandfather. 

Héctor Cúper called Ham up for the Asian Cup and he was ever-present in their journey to the last-16, the nation's best-ever finish in the competition. The midfielder is now taking a well-earned rest; but his eventual return will be a further boost to a team that seems to have taken to the top flight like a duck to water.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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