Wednesday, July 17, 2024

SPORTS | 22-10-2021 22:07

Resurgent Boca eye blockbuster finish to league campaign

Nineteen months on from the Xeneize’s Superliga title win, plucked right from out under the nose of River Plate, there’s a sense of déjà vu around La Boca. But have they left it too little, too late?

That unforgettable night that saw Argentina's last league champion crowned now feels like an eternity away. A packed Bombonera; Juan Román Riquelme, Carlos Tevez and Diego Maradona sharing centre-stage as Boca Juniors took on Gimnasia for the chance to win the title; the passionate embrace between those two great friends, and Carlitos' subsequent goal and celebrations. Covid-19 was still just a menacing blip on the horizon, and nobody could tell just how much or how deeply our lives would be altered in just a few short days, or which beloved idols we would be mourning along the way.

Fast forward 19 months from that Superliga win, plucked right from out under the nose of River Plate, and there is a sense of déjà vu around La Boca. Sebastián Battaglia's charges are coming up fast on the rail, and there is a (rather slight, admittedly) chance we might see another Superclásico head-to-head which decides the fate of the 2021 Liga Profesional.

To tell the truth, both Boca and River have made strong headway after slow starts to the season. River went into Thursday's top of the table clash away to Talleres with eight wins in their last nine games to open up a four-point lead over the Córdoba side, and further strengthened their title credentials by downing the Matador 2-0, a fantastic result considering that they played almost the entire game with 10 men due to Fernando Peña's borderline-criminal stamp in the opening minutes.

Battaglia, meanwhile, is enjoying his first stint on the bench after replacing Miguel Ángel Russo six games into the term, with Boca winless in the league with just two goals to their name and also out of the Copa Libertadores. The Xeneize playing legend's Liga record so far reads eight wins and two draws in 11 matches, most recently overcoming Godoy Cruz on Wednesday, with a Superclásico defeat at the hands of the sparkling Julián Álvarez the only black mark against his name so far. Boca's own answer to the 21-year-old Argentina star is Luis Vázquez, a year Álvarez's junior, who with three goals in the last three games has ensured the club quickly put behind them the disappointment of losing to their arch-rivals and who epitomises the injection of youthful vigour the appointment of the former reserve team coach has represented.

“The team has a new mentality and we are settling in with time,” Vázquez signalled in a September interview following Battaglia's arrival. Fellow youngster Aaron Molinas, who has also proved key in Boca's resurgence, concurred: “Seba's idea is to dominate, go out and look for the result both home and away... we are picking up a new playing style and we will give the fans lots of joy.”

Given River's imperious form, Boca may have left it a little late this time. They must recover no less than nine points in the last eight games to at least force a tie with their nemesis; possible, of course, but unlikely when Marcelo Gallardo's Millo are running down fellow title challengers with almost laughable ease. While Russo's Xeneize managed six straight wins to take the crown back in 2020, Battaglia would need an even more impressive finish to the season to even get close.

The still-reigning champions will not give up the chase lightly, though. And ultimately the winner is Argentine football as a whole. Both clubs' starting line-ups in the last round of fixtures had an average age of just 25, with plenty of promising talent on display in a signal that, after the ravages of the pandemic, the game might yet recover thanks to this new generation of talent, Vázquez, Álvarez et al. For all the criticisms justly levelled at this uncomfortable, bloated hybrid of a campaign, it might just be setting up for a memorable blockbuster finish.


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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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