Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo and – who’d have thunk it? – Tigre will have to play a three-team playoff to decide the 2008 Primera A Torneo Apertura title, after all three won their last matches of the campaign on Sunday to finish on 39 points. Lanús, who beat San Martín de Tucumán, are out of the running on just 37.
Boca and San Lorenzo had it all their own ways early on in their matches. Boca found themselves 2-0 up after less than quarter of an hour. First Luciano Figueroa shot home from close range and then, six minutes on, Juan Román Riquelme finished off a fine team attack to double the lead. Meanwhile over in La Paternal, San Lorenzo were taking a seventh-minute lead away to Argentinos Juniors, as Gonzalo Bergessio took full advantage of a cock-up in the defence.
Tigre, in El Monumental de Victoria, were struggling a bit more. Two sides were tipped to lose today – Argentinos were supposed to have been offered payment by San Lorenzo to go easy on them, and Banfield were expected to roll over for Tigre in order that their local rivals Lanús’s slim chances didn’t come to anything. Banfield, though, were running hard, closing their opponents down all over the pitch, and not looking like they wanted to let anything through. Combined with news of early leads for the other contenders, and Tigre’s own nerves at what would be an historic first title for the club, things weren’t going the home side’s way.
In La Paternal, too, Argentinos were playing like a side who wanted to disprove suggestions that they’d taken San Lorenzo’s money. If they were trying to throw the game, they weren’t doing it very well – they forced a couple of brilliant saves from Cuervo goalkeeper Agustín Orión either side of Bergessio’s goal. Boca were finding things easier, though. Colón were playing like eleven Santa Fe-based Boca fans who’d met for the first time on their way down to the match, and only found out on arrival that they’d be required to provide some opposition. Figueroa got his second of the match to put Boca 3-0 up after 27 minutes, and it was game over at La Bombonera.
Or was it? As San Lorenzo protected their lead in the face of a surprisingly motivated Argentinos, and Tigre laboured to get whatever they could at home to Banfield, Colón decided to do a bit of attacking shortly before half time. As news filtered through that Tigre had finally taken the lead through Martín Morel’s calm finish, Nicolás Torres took down the ball just outside Boca’s box and fired a left-footed shot across the face of goal and into the far corner to pull one back for the visitors shortly before the break.
The half-time break lasted longer in La Bombonera than elsewhere. Tigre and San Lorenzo had already been back out and playing for ten and nine minutes respectively when Boca finally took to the pitch. Far be it from to suggest that had Tigre tried that psychological trick, the referee might have told them to get on with it. By the time Boca kicked off, Tigre goalkeeper Daniel Islas had already had to race from his goal to prevent Banfield forward Facundo Ferreyra from equalising.
As Tigre and San Lorenzo both worked through second halves which proved ultimately goalless, though, Boca were being made to sweat. Just a minute-and-a-half into the second half, Colón striker Lucas Valdemarín met a cross with his head and smashed the ball against the bar. Minutes later he missed another sitter, this time with his feet, at the near post. In the 52nd minute, it was third time lucky as he pulled his side back to just 3-2 down, and the atmosphere in La Bombonera could have been cut with a knife.
As the half wore on in Riachuelo, San Lorenzo were keeping Argentinos at arm’s length with a little more ease in their own second period. Sebastián Torrico in the Argentinos goal was having a stormer and, when Ignacio Canuto was sent off for the hosts with five minutes left, there was little drama in La Paternal.
In Tigre, Islas once again saved from Ferreyra right at the death, to ensure the minnows’ place in the end-of-season finale. Whilst all this was going on, Jesús Dátolo had a goal disallowed for offside for Boca, and Colón continued to throw men forward increasingly as the match drew to a close, exposing themselves more and more to Boca’s counters. If Valdemarín had been a better finisher they might even have pulled something out of the bag, but ultimately Boca’s first half showing proved enough to see them across the line.
A three-way playoff, then. It’s only happened once before: in the Torneo Nacional of 1968, when Vélez Sársfield won their first championship after beating River Plate and Racing Club in an end-of-season round robin. The only one of this year’s protagonists to have previously played in a championship playoff are Boca, who lost to Estudiantes two years ago at the end of the 2006 Apertura.
The 1968 triangular was played entirely in the Gasómetro, the much-loved former home of San Lorenzo, and Vélez took the title following a 1-1 draw with River in which the referee failed to spot Vélez defender Luis Gregorio Gallo diving full-length to push a shot out with his hand. That match, played on the 29th September, was the last in the career of River’s legendary goalkeeper Amadeo Carrizo.
The matches will be played on the 17th, 20th and 23rd of December. All the other details – the order of the fixtures, the venues, referees etc. – are being decided as I type in a meeting of the representatives of the three clubs at the AFA headquarters.