If Saturday wasn’t already going to be a maddening enough day for fans of all the clubs involved in the relegation dogfight in Argentina, events on Friday made sure it would become just a little more nail-biting for fans of two clubs in particular. They were, of course, the two clubs in the fight who have been most recently promoted. Whilst Quilmes manager Ricardo Caruso Lombardi raged against Independiente’s preparations to take on Huracán, his Olimpo counterpart Omar De Felippe had reason to get angry with an even bigger figure: AFA president Julio Grondona himself.
Caruso Lombardi’s anger came on hearing that, due to what they insist are legitimate injuries to the first three choices, Independiente will be sending in their fourth-choice goalkeeper for their game against Huracán. Independiente themselves assured their own safety last weekend, and as they’re about to have a very poor season wiped off their record in the Promedio relegation table (see the second section down on this page for an explanation), don’t have anything at all to play for in this final match. Quilmes, though, need Independiente to beat Huracán if they’re to retain their faint hope of reaching the playoff spot currently occupied by the Parque Patricios side.
On hearing the news that Diego Rodríguez, a 21-year-old who will be making his competitive debut for El Rojo if he does indeed play on Saturday, will be between the sticks against Huracán, Caruso Lombardi – never the most shy, retiring of people – nearly exploded. ‘They can’t do this. I thought they were taking the piss [when I first heard],’ he told the press. ‘How do you injure all three goalkeepers?’ he asked, whilst also insisting that, ‘there are people at Huracán who already knew the fourth-choice goalkeeper was going to be playing.’ In the fight to avoid the automatic relegation spots, the performance of Rodríguez will be a major talking point for Caruso Lombardi should Huracán score whilst getting the draw (or better) that would condemn Quilmes.
Friday saw another declaration that was even more eyebrow-raising than Caruso’s, though. AFA president Julio Grondona gave what many would call an ill-advised pronouncement on how he thought the final day would go. Ill-advised if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the last person in the country who has to worry about his position, of course. With the whole relegation system having been reintroduced in the 1980s to keep the big clubs – and specifically, at the time of its introduction, River Plate – in the top flight, and with many having thought all season that the AFA wouldn’t let River be relegated when push came to shove, Grondona seemed to acknowledge as much in the eyes of Omar De Felippe. On Friday, the AFA head honcho said that River, ‘are one of the teams with the best possibility of not having to play the relegation playoff. I’ve got a feeling about it.’
On the face of it, of course, that’s utter rubbish. Olimpo play Quilmes, who are bottom of the promedio table, whilst River play Lanús, who with a win will finish second in the Torneo Clausura, and who until last week’s surprising 1-0 reverse at home to Argentinos were easily the country’s form team. The best hope for River is that Lanús now have nothing but pride to play for. And of the sides still in the race, it’s surely Tigre who have the ‘best possibility’ of not ending up in the playoff; all they need is a draw, and for either Olimpo or River to fail to win.
The moment those last words, ‘I’ve got a feeling about it,’ left Grondona’s lips, he was always going to be open to accusations that the River result is already decided. Or perhaps, the Olimpo result; if Olimpo fail to win, River will stay up even with a loss, but should Olimpo and River both win, they’ll finish level on average points. Olimpo manager Omar De Felippe was diplomatic when giving his thoughts on the matter on Friday. He stopped short of expressing anger at Grondona’s implied position, merely saying;
‘Grondona’s declarations surprised me, above all due to the timing. I don’t know if it was the best thing to say that. I’m not bothered about River, but perhaps it wasn’t [the cleverest thing] to have said that right now. We’re getting ready for the match with Quilmes and we don’t want anything to take that focus out of our heads. Our historical record against Quilmes isn’t good [the sides have met 17 times; Quilmes have won 8 to Olimpo’s 3], we have to be ready. I don’t distrust anyone, but I’ve got to keep my guard high. In this club it’s always that way.’
In a match that’s going to be key to both of the parallel relegation battles – the struggle between Gimnasia, Huracán and Quilmes to finish 18th and get the coveted lower playoff spot, and the fight between River, Tigre and Olimpo to avoid finishing 17th and have to play in the higher one, it was always clear that Quilmes vs Olimpo was going to be the key match. With both sides needing a win, it might well be the best choice for neutrals to watch as well. And events on Friday ensured that both sides might feel they’re fighting external forces as much as merely playing the game on the pitch.
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