BUENOS AIRES - The mood in Argentina at the
start of a new season this weekend is quite different from a
mere two months ago - before River Plate's shock relegation and
the national team's Copa America failure.
The prospect of a season without a 'Superclasico' - the
country's biggest derby between arch enemies River and Boca
Juniors - was unheard of, as was the idea that the second-tier
Nacional B division might actually be of huge interest.
River have been on a recruiting drive that has put most of
the top flight clubs in the shade with the return of players
such as strikers Fernando Cavenaghi and Alejandro Dominguez, who
helped them win titles in the early 2000s.
They have been making headline news almost every day as they
prepare to try to bounce back in one season.
A controversial plan espoused by Argentine Football
Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona to merge the top two
divisions into a 38-team national championship from next season
also made waves until it was literally shouted down.
Amid suspicions it was being devised to help River and make
sure other top sides like Boca do not risk a similar fate,
Grondona took less than a week to say the idea had been "put in
Club directors, coaches and players criticised the concept
in the media and fans staged a protest against Grondona outside
AFA headquarters, while River's president Daniel Passarella and
new coach Matias Almeyda, both former captains, said they wanted
to come back up by their own means.
Grondona sacked Argentina coach Sergio Batista after the
Copa America hosts could not get past the quarter-finals and has
replaced him with Alejandro Sabella, who will be keeping a close
eye on the domestic league after the failure of a team packed
with elite European exiles.
Champions Velez Sarsfield have quietly gone about the
business of preparing to defend their title, while making good
money for new signings with the transfer of midfielders Ricky
Alvarez to Inter Milan and Maxi Moralez to Atalanta.
Boca have gone nearly three seasons without a title, a long
time for a club of their standing when there are two on offer
per season, the Apertura (opening) from August to December
followed by the Clausura (closing) from February to June.
Following Martin Palermo's retirement, Boca signed former
Ajax Amsterdam striker Dario Cvitanich.
Juan Roman Riquelme, on whom their hopes are centred again
after an injury-plagued 2010/11 season, has taken over the
Two major Boca targets close to the deadline were the return
of Real Madrid and Argentina midfielder Fernando Gago and the
signing of Uruguayan goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa, who helped
Penarol reach the final of the Copa Libertadores in June.
A major factor in River's relegation - the result of their
poor points average over three seasons in a system ironically
devised to save the big clubs from the drop - was how well
promoted sides All Boys and Olimpo did.
Neither finished in the relegation zone in the table of
three-season points averages and instead two other sides who
have traditionally been a part of the top flight, Huracan and
Gimnasia de La Plata, went down with River.
Few of the major derbies remain as Estudiantes will not face
Gimnasia while Rosario Central, whose arch-rivals are Newell's
Old Boys, continue to struggle in the Nacional B.
That leaves the Avellaneda derby between Independiente, who
have brought back Argentina central defender Gabriel Milito from
Barcelona, and Racing Club, now under coach Diego Simeone, as
the major first division 'clasico'.
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