The 2008 Torneo Clausura kicks off at long last following the summer break on Friday evening, with Lanús aiming to defend the title they won so improbably back in December, whilst the likes of Boca will be wanting to get back to winning ways. Other big sides need improved performances, for a variety of reasons, and for some the Clausura will be a scramble for survival. Step this way for the preview…
Lanús, the champions, have had a quiet summer in the transfer market and played only a few low-key friendlies, but when competitive action resumed, they showed that the mentality and style which took them to the Apertura title was still present. Unlucky to lose 1-0 at altitude to Ecuadorian side Olmedo, they took them apart in the second half of the return, winning 3-0 to book their place in the Copa Libertadores group stage. The lack of transfer activity works both ways, of course – it means no reinforcements of note have come in, but it also means manager Ramón Cabrero, and key men Diego Valeri and José Sand are still there, in Valeri’s case despite apparent interest from Italian champions Inter. A second straight title would be unlikely, but they’re riding the crest of a wave at the moment, so don’t bet against them. A 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2, with Valeri given the playmaking duties and Sand leading the line, is most likely.
Argentina’s two giants are both stinging more than a little. Boca Juniors will be sore at not having won the Apertura after still being in the race with two matches remaining, and will want to expunge the memory of finishing behind not one, not two, but three sides who’ve never before won a title. With Juan Román Riquelme returning to his boyhood club, the expectations will be as high as ever in spite of initial fan disillusionment at the appointment of Carlos Ischia as manager to replace Miguel Angel Russo. And with the experience of the squad and the history of success, if any club in Argentina is going to challenge on two fronts – league and Copa Libertadores – it will be Boca. Riquelme will be the enganche (‘hook’) in a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Neri Cardozo a likely regular in midfield and Martín Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio feeding on the slo-mo maestro’s through balls up front.
River Plate fans will be expecting their side to improve on the Apertura showing, too, but more dramatically than Boca’s. River finished a dismal 14th in the season’s first championship, and lost – heavily – to all four of the newly promoted clubs. The departure of Daniel Passarella as manager has brought in Diego Simeone, winner of the 2006 Apertura with Estudiantes just eleven months into his managerial career, who has wasted no time in stamping his image onto the club. Under Passarella, River attacked a lot but lacked precision. If Simeone’s plans come good, and they rediscover their touch in the final third, they could score by the bucketload. Fernando Belluschi has departed for Olympiakos, so Ariel Ortega will be the team’s reference. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 3-3-1-3, 3-3-3-1… It’s anyone’s guess what Simeone’s exact formation and lineup will be, but one thing’s certain: if you visit the Monumental and River live up to expectations, you’ll see a few goals.
Relegation becomes an issue during the Clausura, at least more immediate an issue, because of the way it’s worked out in Argentina. At the end of the whole season (which means the end of the Clausura), the number of points each side has won in the division over the last three seasons is counted up and the relegation table drawn up on the basis of points-per-game. This is the Promedio, which you can take a look at over on our Tables page.
During this half of the season, then, the sides towards the bottom of the Promedio (not, you will notice, the same as the sides who were bottom of the Apertura) have some sweating to do, not to mention some (at times) complicated mental arithmetic. So far, it’s looking like an average of around 1.2 points per match might be enough – Olimpo and San Martín, both newly promoted, will need to get their skates on if they want to force their way into even 17th or 18th place, which whilst not guaranteeing safety, at least gives them the second chance of a playoff against the 3rd- or 4th-placed team from B Nacional.
Of a little more concern to traditionalists are the identities of the two sides currently occupying those playoff spots. Newell’s Old Boys and Rosario Central are the two biggest sides from Argentina’s second city, and Newell’s won the championship as recently as 2004. Both sides were dreadful during the Apertura – Central won only one match before the penultimate weekend, and that was the city derby against Newell’s, by a solitary goal – and either or both of them going down would, in terms of the fanbase and ‘size’ of the club, be a shock. Even with a relegation system designed to give the big clubs ample chance to arrest a decline, however, they’re still in danger of doing so.
Racing, a little way up the Promedio, needn’t sweat on it quite so much for the moment. If their legion off-field problems spill over and affect the team’s performances, though, then a more serious on-field decline than that already witnessed in the last couple of years might start. The return of Maxi Moralez during the last week before the campaign’s commencement will be a huge shot in the arm for a massive club in real need of a confidence boost.
Other sides will hope to push on strongly. Independiente began the Apertura brilliantly and led for much of the campaign, but slipped away badly during the last third and finished 9th. Striker Germán Denis hit 18 goals during that campaign, and has continued the good run through the summer matches in spite of a nasty encounter with a dog in a Mar del Plata park on the first day of pre-season. El Rojo will be aiming for an improvement all round in the Clausura, and a return to the Copas next season. Whether they can hang on for long enough this time remains to be seen.
Banfield are a smaller side, but better positioned to take a qualification spot for the Copas than Independiente are, and have more recent experience of them, for that matter. Darío Cvitanich will continue to lead the line, as the boys from El Sur aim to help their fans forget that local rivals Lanús got a first-ever title before they could. Tigre, meanwhile, shouldn’t be forgotten – promoted just six months ago, they stunned Argentina by finishing second to Lanús, and it was a defeat in Victoria which dumped Boca out of the title race in their penultimate match. Having lost star turn Leandro Lázzaro to Estudiantes in a bizarre transfer saga, they’ll find it hard to repeat the feat. If the lowered expectations help them to retain the surprise element, though, who knows – maybe qualification for the Copa Sudamericana, at least, wouldn’t be out of the question…
The Argentine league has been notoriously unpredictable so far this century, and that’s a large part of what makes Hasta El Gol Siempre such an enjoyable site to run. I will not, therefore, be attempting any hard-and-fast predictions. I shall hazard a couple of guesses, though: Huracán, who got a solid mid-table spot, and of course Tigre, will be safe from relegation for this season at least. If Claudio Ubeda takes to management well after Ossie Ardiles’s resignation in December, Huracán might even climb into contention for a Copa place. River, and I suspect Racing following Maxi Moralez’s return, will be on their way back up the table, but probably not all the way to the top. What effect Andrés D’Alessandro’s arrival has on San Lorenzo will be interesting to see, but if nothing else they’ll score a few. Banfield, Lanús and Boca will be there or thereabouts when the Clausura ends, with possibly another couple of sides also challenging, and Olimpo and San Martín – sorry to fans of these clubs – are my tips for automatic relegation. Colón and Gimnasia de Jujuy, hovering just above the two Rosario sides for relegation playoff spots, have to watch out – especially Colón, who don’t have the (real or imagined) advantage of high-altitude home matches.
More enjoyable than writing and speculating about all this, however, is the chance to see for ourselves how it really all unfolds. So, sit back and enjoy. What promises to be a memorable title campaign is ahead of us, stretching all the way to late June, and Hasta El Gol Siempre will be with you every step of the way.