Tuesday, February 27, 2024

SPORTS | 20-10-2022 18:51

With Boca a point clear, Argentina’s top flight set for a gripping finale

End of the league campaign promises a nail-biting finale and the presence of each challenger's nemesis only increases the potential for morbid speculation and outrageous conspiracy theories.

It was a night Marcelo Gallardo will never forget. A coach staying in the same job at the highest level of Argentine or South American football (or indeed, in these modern times, anywhere in the game's elite) for more than eight years is all but unheard of; one signing off his tenure with his head held high and with the applause and chants of tens of thousands of fans ringing in his ears frankly unbelievable. The Gallardo decade has produced trophies, goals and countless fine performances, and he will be missed by many – even, perhaps, and however begrudgingly, by those who have seen his River Plate side get the better of their own teams time and time again over the last decade.

Gallardo cannot afford to rest just yet, mind. Sunday's defeat at the hands of Rosario Central – yes, among the tributes and tears there was actually a game of football hidden in there somewhere – may have ended River's own faint hopes of retaining the Liga Profesional de Fútbol, but they now find themselves in the intriguing position of kingmaker going into a thrilling final weekend.

The Millonario will play out El Muñeco's final game in charge on Sunday away in Avellaneda against Racing Club, one of the two teams still in the running for the title. The other contender, Boca Juniors, will be playing right on the other side of the Riachuelo against Racing's own arch-rivals Independiente, knowing that thanks to the one-point advantage regained following victory over Gimnasia they need only match the Racing result to take the crown.

It promises to be a nail-biting finale, the closest in Argentina since Boca and River fought to the end for the 2020 league title, and the presence of each challenger's nemesis only increases the potential for morbid speculation and outrageous conspiracy theories.

Both Boca and Racing came to the fore thanks to a stunning final stretch of the season which saw them breeze past early pace-setters Atlético Tucumán and see off the challenge of Gallardo's perennial candidates. The Xeneize lost five of their first 11 games but since then have racked up 11 victories, three draws and just a single defeat, to Newell's Old Boys last weekend, to spend much of the last month at the top of the pile.

More than anything they have made a habit of getting goals just when they need them, and no more. Lucas Langoni's strike to put his team 2-1 up against Gimnasia means that Boca's last 13 wins in all competitions have come by a single-goal margin, while one must look back to August to find the last occasion in the league when they enjoyed an advantage of more than one strike in the league. It was also no surprise to see Langoni make the difference: his six goals this campaign have earned the Xeneize no fewer than eleven points down the stretch, essentially the difference between mid-table obscurity and being odds-on to win the title.

The Avellaneda side, meanwhile, launched their own late offensive in September, only dropping points in that bizarre 3-3 draw with Defensa y Justicia and winning all of their other seven fixtures to cap a fine year. But once again it is Fernando Gago's beloved Boca that stand in the way of the coach and silverware. He could only watch back in May as his old club pipped Racing on penalties on their way to the Copa Liga Profesional de Fùtbol and despite another turbulent year which included another coaching change they could end 2022 with the double – or even treble, should they win through the final phases of the Copa Argentina.

Now it all comes down to this Sunday. Both title hopefuls finishing the season in front of their own fans, their stadiums packed to the brim, while also praying for a helping hand from precisely the two teams from which they would not expect any kind of favour to be forthcoming. A fitting end to a long, action-packed season – and one bound to remain in our memories whatever the final outcomes in La Boca and Avellaneda.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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