I’m going to start a series today based on my thoughts about the match (or one of the matches) I attended over the weekend in the Argentine Primera División. The weekend just gone, that was Sunday’s clásico between River Plate and Independiente. The home side need as many points on the board as early as possible in their battle against relegation, whilst the visitors had started the season underwhelmingly and, after last year’s title challenge, remain impatient for a win. I headed to the match to see whether Ángel Cappa had managed to improve his team with a proper pre-season.
My previous visit to the Estadio Monumental had been on the last weekend of the Clausura, when a solid but underwhelming performance had somehow been punished with a somewhat freak 5-1 win for Tigre. Having already avenged that defeat with a 1-0 win on the opening weekend of this year’s Torneo Apertura, River then recorded a second win by the same scoreline last week away to Cappa’s former side, Huracán. The first performance was far from impressive, and the second better in the first half but woeful in the second. All the same, two goals and two clean sheets were breeding confidence, and even more so with some players clearly yet to hit their stride and new signing Leandro Caruso yet to even play.
Independiente’s season so far has been in stark contrast. I was at last Monday’s draw with Argentinos Juniors; a dull match in which only the impressive hold-up play of forward Néstor Silvera really stood out. The week before, they’d lost 1-0 away to a Vélez Sarsfield side who could have had more. Like River, they’ve lacked rhythm in the early rounds, but unlike River they’ve rarely looked like playing slightly more impressive football than hoofing the ball up for Silvera. All the same, a first clásico of the season for the hosts brought added pressures.
In the end, they were illusory pressures from the point of view of the match situation. In the first half, River were totally dominant when in possession. Independiente continued to struggle to keep the ball, and their main tactic was to play it up to Silvera and Germán Pacheco to get in amongst River’s centre back pairing of Jonathan Maidana and Alexis Ferrero. Although strong on the ball, River’s defence looked suspect to this tactic throughout, and it was through precisely that play – a long ball up and a brilliant finished across Juan Pablo Carrizo by Silvera – that drew Independiente briefly level after Rogelio Funes Mori’s opener.
River kept up the pressure though. They pressed high up the pitch (by Argentine league standards) and although their cross-field passes weren’t the most accurate, especially in the opening exchanges, the movement of their three young attacking midfielders – Diego Buonanotte, Roberto Pereyra and Manuel Lanzini – eventually prised Independiente’s defence open. Lanzini, with the pressure of replacing the suspended Ariel Ortega two weeks after a disappointing opening week performance, played a delightful chipped ball into Funes Mori for the striker’s second goal of the game to put River 2-1 up. And another player who epitomises River’s attacking commitment – right back Paulo Ferrari – got yet another goal to make it 3-1 in the 25th minute.
River could have had others before the break. With a long season ahead and with Ortega missing and Independiente offering little, though, it was understandable that they eased off a little for the last twenty minutes of the half. The problem after the break was that picking themselves back up for it subsequently became harder. Winning fairly comfortably but still looking obviously vulnerable to the balls over the top made for a nervy second 45 minutes, and whilst it would probably have been better to keep pressing forward and try to kill the game off altogether, a team with recent memories of failure seemed caught in two minds.
They came very close to making it 4-1 all the same, but – like last week away to Huracán – were nowhere near as good in the second half as they had been in the first. Independiente continued to pressure and the wisdom of bringing Carrizo back in in goal was shown again. For all his tribulations in Europe, Carrizo was the best goalkeeper in Argentina when River last won a title in the 2008 Clausura, and showed that he feels truly at home in the Monumental again, constantly cajoling his defenders and doing his best to repel the ride tide. He was unlucky with the nature of his own goal with a minute of the ninety to go – the ball bounced back up off the base of his post, hit him in the face and went in the net – but pulled off a fantastic save with almost the last touch of the game to prevent El Rojo claiming a draw that would – for all their obvious frailties – have been a little harsh on River.
Cappa recognised, after the game, that ‘there’s still a lot of rhythm lacking before we arrive at the tiki tiki,’ but it must be said that the improvement has been game-on-game so far, and the performances of the ‘three kids’ on Sunday were encouraging. Facundo Affranchino could impose himself a little more as the doble cinco, but he’s learning from one of the best in Matías Almeyda (named man of the match by the broadcasters). Up front, with Caruso now fit to play – he came off the bench with 12 minutes to go to make his River debut – Funes Mori is now finally hitting the form he struggled, due to injury and lack of confidence, to find last season.
After a flurry of goals in the last few games of the Clausura, Funes Mori now has three goals in River’s opening three games, and the fact his second was scored even as he slipped yesterday shows that things are falling far more kindly for him all of a sudden. And with Gimnasia stumbling – just two points from the opening three rounds – and Tigre playing dreadfully, with three losses so far, River could find themselves clear of the relegation playoff places by next Monday, if the results go the right way for them. Both Tigre and Gimnasia are now only a point clear of them.
Independiente so far look unlikely to mount another title challenge, and with the names they lost during the winter break Daniel Garnero could be forgiven for deciding to concentrate on seeing how far he can take his side in the Copa Sudamericana this term. Facundo Parra, for me, deserves more of a run in the side, but the biggest adjustment they need to make is to stop bypassing the midfield quite so much. In the Nicoláses Martínez and Cabrera, not to mention Patricio Rodríguez, they’ve got players on the bench to play more through the midfield if they want to, after all. They might be young, but so are the three who helped drive River to victory on Sunday.
In the coming weekend, I’ll probably be checking out Huracán for the first time this season, as they host Newell’s Old Boys on Friday. Whilst I might not get to a game every single weekend (especially with the new season’s ticket price rises), I’ll be trying to make these pieces a regular feature when I do.
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