Hasta El Gol Siempre‘s Sam Kelly takes an early look at the start of Argentina’s football season – namely the 2008 Clausura and the Copa Libertadores.
The 2008 Torneo Clausura is three weeks old, and already Argentina’s got a club at the top of the league table who haven’t been there for a little while. Estudiantes de La Plata, the champions of the 2006 Apertura, have made a good start to life under new manager Roberto Sensini, winning all three of their games, but joining them on maximum points are a side who’d lately become all but lost to mid-table: Vélez Sársfield.
Vélez’s rise back to championship contenders after a little while off has been sudden but hardly dramatic or unpredictable. The club from the west of the Capital Federal district brought in former Mexico boss Ricardo La Volpe at the start of 2007, after he’d narrowly failed to guide Boca Juniors to the league title, and in return sent Boca their own ex-boss, Miguel Angel Russo going the other way. La Volpe had a promising start but faded after a while and Vélez never quite achieved what they might have done under him. So, at the end of the 2007 Apertura, out he went, to be replaced by Tocalli.
Tocalli doesn’t have the same instant recognisability to foreign Argentina-watchers as does the chain-smoking, massive-moustached La Volpe, one of the most recognisable managers of the last World Cup in Germany, but whilst he’s quieter than his predecessor, he’s got plenty going for him managerially: it was he who guided Argentina’s Under 20s to victory in last year’s World Youth Cup in Canada, and the club he’s now joined is renowned for having one of the best youth academies in Argentina and some of the best training facilities on the continent. And he’s moulding that young side into a well-functioning machine, with the emphasis on attacking football (three matches, nine goals scored) and two able forwards, Gustavo BalvorÃn and Santiago Silva, at the head.
‘Our objective is to qualify for the Copas [Libertadores and Sudamericana],’ insisted the manager this week when quizzed about whether he was going to aim any higher following the good start. ‘If something else happens, even better. Much better.’ But he’s not going to get carried away with the thought. He’s aware, though, that the championship contenders — Estudiantes, defending champions Lanús, and the ever-present duo of River Plate and Boca Juniors — all have Copa Libertadores campaigns to potentially distract them from their pursuit of the league title, and that’s one head-turner Vélez don’t currently have to worry about. How far can Tocalli take this team? Time will tell…
It’s been a mixed start for Argentina’s sides in the Copa Libertadores, meanwhile. River, Estudiantes and San Lorenzo all got off to losing starts away from home against nominally smaller teams at high altitude. Home matches for these teams will count for a lot, so it won’t be much comfort for Estudiantes to have drawn their first home game on Tuesday night, against fellow Argentines Lanús, who themselves now have four points after two matches.
River, after that opening defeat to San MartÃn of Peru, were desperate to win against América on Wednesday night and get their group campaign up and running, even more so after 2007 saw them perform disastrously in the competition, crashing out in the first round after defeats both away and at home to Caracas — the latter was the first time a Venezuelan club had ever won a match in Argentina. They made hard work of it, falling behind early on but going in at the break all square thanks to an equaliser from Colombian striker Radamel Falcao GarcÃa, who’s developing a happy habit for them of scoring in all the big games. The second half saw relentless pressure from River with no way through the visiting defence — until with the very last kick of the match, immediately after Falcao and América defender José Castro had seen red for fighting, Ariel Ortega sent the ball flying into the net and the Estadio Monumental exploded. Watching River in the Copa Libertadores is rarely dull, but it’s not often an early group match causes quite that amount of nerves, all the same.
Arsenal de SarandÃ, meanwhile, are playing in their first ever Libertadores, right after beating América in that Copa Sudamericana final, and after qualifying with ease got things in the competition proper started just swimmingly with a 1-0 win over Paraguayan dark horses Libertad, who have made a habit of making things very awkward for Argentine clubs in recent seasons and have been tipped by plenty of seasoned Copa-watchers to go some distance in this year’s tournament. In beating them, Arsenal managed one thing they didn’t do at any point during their succesful Sudamericana run: they won a match at home. Amazing, hey?
Lanús got off to a still better start, beating the intimidating Uruguayan side Danubio 3-1 at home and playing as well as they had done in winning the domestic title during the first half of this season. Defending Libertadores champions Boca Juniors, however, were rather underwhelming, falling behind to a spectacular late free kick from Miguel Mea Vitali in Maracaibo before rallying to equalise through Sebastián Battaglia. So far in the Copa, it’s very much a case of ‘must improve’ for Argentina’s clubs. This early on, however, it’s all to play for both at home and internationally…
For more insight on Argentinian football, read Sam Kelly at Hasta El Gol Siempre.