The fallout from the clásico against San Lorenzo on Sunday is beginning to die down in Núñez now, after two days of bitter attacks on Cuervo defender Sebastián Méndez for his horrific attempt to snap Radamel Falcao García in two at the end of the match. Now, though, manager Diego Simeone has to look forward to the next match – and the question arises, why aren’t River playing at the same level they did during the Clausura?
Méndez was among Falcao’s critics after San Lorenzo dumped River out of the Copa Libertadores with a spectacular nine-man comeback from two goals down in the Monumental earlier this year. The Colombian striker hadn’t been shy about telling the world how lucky he felt San Lorenzo had been, and was accused by many of the squad of sour grapes. His compatriot Méndez reiterated the criticism when asked about his sending-off on Sunday, after which he’d appeared to attempt to dismantle part of the tunnel back to the dressing room, and said that Falcao had had it coming for his previous ‘sour grapes’ attitude. A number of River’s players, most vocally Matías Abelairas, pointed out that if there were any sour grapes here, it was probably Méndez who was chewing on them.
On Wednesday though, with the cussing out of the way until the teams next meet, it was back to business on the training pitch in earnest, as Simeone sought to examine the reasons for his side’s poor showing so far this season. The names, by and large, are the same as those which won the Clausura a few months ago, but River today are playing with less conviction and less aggresively. They’ve missed players like Juan Pablo Carrizo and Ariel Ortega, of course, whilst Diego Buonanotte is only just being reintegrated after his successful time in China winning Olympic gold, but for defending champions there can be no excuses.
Simeone begun the season by setting to one side the 4-2-3-1 which formed the basis of the title triumph in June – and switching to a 3-4-1-2 which will allow him to use Falcao alongside new arrival Santiago Salcedo up front, but which necessitates everyone in the team adjusting to a new shape. Buonanotte’s return complicates things a little because, as top scorer and the side’s best player during the Clausura, if anyone merits having the side built around him, it’s el Enano. Simeone also wants to seek a way to get the best out of the multi-functional Leonardo Ponzio, who was signed as a midfielder but has playing at the back so far this season as if he’s been there his whole career, and is to be given a remit to start moving forward out of defence like an old-style libero.
Two weeks ago, Simeone – who admitted after the title win that he wanted the side to keep evolving towards a style he had in mind – told River’s fans that ‘in the sixth round [of the Apertura] you’ll see the true team.’ With the World Cup qualifiers this weekend, that means midweek in two weeks’ time, when the opposition will be Vélez – hardly a pushover of a match to predict your team coming good in. Simeone has proved himself a pretty handy manager so far in his career – will his latest plan stand up to scrutiny?