Sitting pretty at the top of the Superliga standings, River Plate kick off in Mendoza tonight knowing that just seven games separate them from the trophy.
Marcelo Gallardo’s men, however, are far from alone in that respect. At press time just five points separated the first-placed Millo – ahead of Argentinos Juniors, who played last night, on goal difference – and Atlético Tucumán down in 11th, meaning this year’s title remains wide open for almost anybody to make a claim in this second ‘half’ (in reality a fraction shy of a third) of the 2019- 20 season.
Since taking over in 2014 Gallardo has written himself into River’s history books. With two Copa Libertadores triumphs and a host of other trophies the coach is arguably the most successful ever to sit on the Millo bench. But there is one asterisk that clings to his name: his failure to lift a national league crown. There have been near-misses over the last five-and-a-half years, including runners-up finishes in 2014 and 2017, but the fact that a squad which has achieved so much in continental and cup competitions over the same period has consistently fallen short locally is nevertheless rather puzzling.
Gallardo himself is partly to blame for that anomaly. The coach is notorious for weakening his starting line-up in Superliga encounters so that his stars can remain fresh for the Libertadores, meaning that over the years a high proportion of River’s league matches have been played using mixed or reserve teams. But there is no such excuse now. Last Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Independiente left the Núñez side on top of the pile and, with the Copa beginning only at the start of March, their only concern will be holding onto that lead over the next couple of months.
“There is no margin of error,” Gallardo warned in Thursday’s press conference, prior to today’s visit to Godoy Cruz. “There is not much to choose between a lot of teams who have chances. There is no time to drop points.”
Similar sentiments are on display around the Bombonera, where the football revolution proposed by new VicePresident Juan Román Riquelme is about to undergo its first test.
With Miguel Ángel Russo in tow for his second spell as Xeneize coach and relatively little transfer activity compared with the usual frenzy of rumours, this new Boca team will bear an uncanny resemblance to the side managed by Gustavo Alfaro up to the end of 2019. Nevertheless, they sit just a point behind their arch-rivals and joint-leaders; and victory tomorrow at home to Independiente would pile on the pressure on Gallardo’s title hopefuls, especially if River drop points in their own fixture.
Behind that trio are plenty of teams who with a handful of victories could still be in the title conversation.
Lanús supporters may be surprised to learn that after a less than overwhelming start to the season the Granate rank alongside Boca within touching distance of the summit, thanks in large part to the evergreen José Sand who is still scoring goals in the Superliga at the ripe old age of 39. Vélez Sarsfield too will hope to build on a solid 2019 under Gabriel Heinze and go the distance, although it remains to be seen whether star signing Ricardo Centurión brings attacking thrust or just one long headache for his new employers. Delve a little further down the table and you will find the likes of Rosario Central, Racing Club, San Lorenzo and Arsenal, all of whom continue in contention despite wildly inconsistent campaigns to date.
The Superliga’s own weaknesses are easy to spot in the table: teams like the Cuervo with almost as many defeats as victories chasing the title; River leading despite playing reserves for most of the season; the fact not a single side has managed an average of two points or more per game.
The 2019-20 term has been mediocre watching so far – but that conversely sets up an enthralling finale as almost half the Superliga kicks off the new year dreaming of glory.