A bit of a paradox, this torneo corto (short championship), because in spite of it only lasting 19 matches, it’s been an absolute epic. We’ve seen four teams in contention for the title, two of whom couldn’t have been expected to do so well at the turn of the year, as well as the (sort of) transformation of River Plate, Racing once again going into the last day with nothing to play for (to their delight) and one of the worst displays in top flight history from Atlético Tucumán. There’s more: a record for Godoy Cruz, and a lot to think about over the winter break for Boca Juniors…
Argentinos Juniors were such a big surprise that, with fewer than 100 minutes left of their championship, they hadn’t at any point been top of the table. A small club (the term’s not as derogatory in Argentina as it would be in, say, England) with only two domestic titles previously – as well as a Copa Libertadores – in the mid-1980s, they welcomed home Claudio Borghi, the playing hero of those trophy wins, to sit on the manager’s bench and reaped the rewards. After four Chilean league titles with Colo Colo, Borghi’s now proving himself in his homeland. And how!
Special mention has to go to Godoy Cruz as well. Never before have a mendocino club come so close to challenging – they lead the league for much of the late summer – and their final total of 37 points is a new record in short championships for a non-directly-AFA-affiliated club (basically, a club from outside Gran Buenos Aires, La Plata and Rosario), beating Talleres de Córdoba’s 35 from the 2004 Clausura.* As manager Omar Asad put it after their win in the last weekend, ‘we’ve won the moral championship.’ If it hadn’t come unstuck in Ángel Cappa’s first match in charge of River Plate, they might just have stayed in the running for the real one too.
The real surprise was the see-saw nature of the title race though. Godoy took the early lead but eventually gave way to Independiente, who couldn’t keep their noses ahead of Estudiantes, who surrendered top spot to Argentinos with just one match to play. Argentinos lost to Godoy in the sixth round but didn’t taste defeat thereafter; in the seventh, they beat Estudiantes 1-0 and that was the Pincha‘s last domestic loss too. The scorer? José Luis Calderón. ‘The law of the ex’ as it’s called in Argentina.
The best players
Few would dispute that Argentinos’ title win was thanks in huge part to the vital pivot created by Borghi in their midfield, using a doble cinco (‘double five’, or two deep-lying/holding midfielders). The two #5s in question were Juan ‘Pelado‘ Mercier and Néstor ‘Gordo‘ Ortigoza. With Mercier frequently breaking forward to good effect and Ortigoza – who was born and raised in the Zona Oeste of Gran Buenos Aires but has Paraguayan ancestry and will be at the World Cup with Gerardo Martino’s side – shielding the defence and pulling the strings superbly from deep, the eventual champions had a solid base to start from.
The fairytale in Argentinos’ title win, though, belongs to José Luis Calderón, who retired from football with Estudiantes de La Plata weeks before last December’s Club World Cup, explaining he just didn’t feel, at the age of 39, that he could do himself or the club justice in Japan. As soon as Borghi arrived in La Paternal, he was on the phone convincing Calderón that; ‘You at least deserve to retire on the pitch, and I think with us you can win something too.’ Calderón might have thought the last bit was a joke, but it’s exactly how it worked out.
From the other competing teams, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching José Sosa of Estudiantes de La Plata, and for what it’s worth, I’d have taken him to the World Cup if I had to pick a 23 from the shortlist Diego Maradona decided on. He’s full of running and has a close control that’s delightful to watch – Estudiantes did very well to help him re-orientate his compass after a misfiring start in Europe at Bayern München. Other impressive campaigns were put in by Lanús youngster Sebastián Blanco, Newell’s defender Juan Manuel Insaurralde and Independiente goalkeeper Adrián Gabbarini. The merits of picking home-based players over those in Europe for a World Cup squad are debatable, but all these (Gabbarini was in competition with Colón’s Diego Pozo for the third goalkeeping spot, and to my mind had a far better campaign) still played well, it has to be said.
River Plate fans, rejoice: For the first time since the title win of two years ago, your team aren’t in this list. Even better for gallinas, Boca Juniors quite indisputably are. Juan Román Riquelme’s never seemed the easiest person to get on with, but his actions around the time of Martín Palermo surpassing Roberto Cherro’s all-time goalscoring record for the club in early April were frankly verging on the unhinged – running pointedly away from Palermo to celebrate on his own before insisting, post-match, that his only problem was with the barra brava group La Doce. Boca, more than any club, need to put their recent campaign(s) behind them and start afresh over the winter. Contracting Claudio Borghi as their new manager is a start, but will it take longer to revitalise a club the size of Boca than it did to mould Argentinos in his own image?
Estudiantes might be disappointed with the eventual outcome of their season, having exited the Copa Libertadores last night, but in reality they’ve been as consistent as any side over the last few years. Second in the league and a quarter-final in the Copa isn’t bad, especially bearing in mind that no team has ever won the Clausura and the Copa Libertadores in the same campaign. In the end, Alejandro Sabella’s side demonstrated exactly why it’s such a hard feat to pull off.
Atlético Tucumán must be leaving with just a little bitterness as well. Having replaced their city rivals San Martín in the top flight, they’ve put in an absolutely dreadful performance, even by the standards of a club who were expected to go straight back down, and managed only one win in the Clausura. Gimnasia La Plata might yet make an even bigger disappointment though, should they fail to win their match on Sunday and surrender their Primera status to Atlético Rafaela…
Manager of the campaign
Claudio Borghi would be the obvious pick, but I’m going to give this to Omar Asad, who without any previous experience at first team level has taken a provincial side with very little experience of even existing in the Primera, and guided them to a third-place finish. Not only that, but they played good football along the way too, and had their campaign not started to unravel when they came up against an Ángel Cappa- and Diego Buonanotte-inspired River Plate in the 15th round, they might have even got to the final weekend with a shot at the title. Borghi’s achievement with Argentinos shouldn’t be understated, but for Asad to make such a splash with such a club in his first semester in management… well, he’s one for the future.
Match of the Clausura
There could only be one. Not only was it probably the most dramatic, but it also ended up deciding the championship. In the penultimate round, with quarter of an hour to play, Independiente were leading Argentinos Juniors 3-1 in the Estadio Diego Maradona and Claudio Borghi was sitting on the bench thinking to himself, ‘Why didn’t I choose to become an engineer instead of a football manager?’
By full-time he had his answer, with Nicolás Pavlovich pulling the deficit back before, in a frantic last few minutes, before Juan Sabia and then Matías Caruzzo hit two goals in three minutes to turn the match (and the title race) on its head. Before El Bicho mounted their comeback, Godoy, Independiente, Estudiantes and Argentinos were all going into the final match with chances to win the title. By the time the referee blew for full time, only Argentinos and Estudiantes were left standing, and it was the club from La Paternal who had the advantage going into the last day. The explosion of unalloyed joy from the stands when the fourth goal went in is something none of us who were there will ever forget.
Looking to the future…
Both Boca and Independiente have changed managers within days of the championship ending, of course. There’s major re-working to do at La Bombonera, but Independiente may have acted a little quickly; After so long in mid-table, nowhere near a trophy, a fourth place finish under Tolo Gallego was hardly shameful. All the same, replacing him with Daniel Garnero ensures there’ll be work to do in the boardroom over the winter as well.
In the season to come, River will be finding it hard not to look over the shoulder – not counting the promoted teams, they’re going to start bottom of the Promedio. All the same, club president Daniel Passarella insisted last week that the team were going to be worrying about a title challenge during the Apertura, not about relegation. The Tigre defeat brought them back down to earth but Ángel Cappa was justified to an extent in saying afterwards that it was a result that didn’t entirely ‘fit’ the match. With the right signings during the winter break, it might not be too much to dream.
Argentinos, of course, have their own future to think about. With eight different teams having won the last eight short championships, they can hardly be expected to defend their title, but they’ll be hopeful of keeping the nucleus of their squad together and finding a replacement for Claudio Borghi who can help them keep the momentum up through the second half of the year. Nery Pumpido and José Pekerman are among the early frontrunners…
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*Thanks to ich0 for this obscurity!
All the photos in this article are my own. You can view the originals on my Flickr page.