Argentina’s league campaign concludes Sunday, and the chase for the title has played out like an episode of the animated television show « Wacky Races » where most of the leading contenders end up in a roadside pile-up.
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For a while it seemed as if there would be something for the romantics to celebrate — a first title for Atletico Tucuman. A club from the northern provinces with 120 years of history, the rise of Tucuman represents a move in Argentina football away from the excessive centralization around Buenos Aires. But in the end it felt as if the proximity of success was an inhibiting factor, and Tucuman have fallen away in the closing stages.
Gimnasia of La Plata were also making a surprise bid. Their only previous title came in 1929, when the game was still amateur. They were in the hunt for a while, but lack of goals — 25 in 26 matches — proved their undoing. From the northern suburbs of the capital, Tigre’s free scoring side were in contention for a while, and in Buenos Aires itself, Huracan put up a good fight.
Powerhouse side River Plate have scored more goals than anyone else, but in the final year of coach Marcelo Gallardo the Millionarios have found it hard to replace the quality of Julian Alvarez, transferred to Manchester City, and perhaps even more, the structure provided by midfielder Enzo Fernandez, now of Benfica. A defeat at home Sunday to Rosario Central, coached by Carlos Tevez, ended their hopes.
And so two teams are left standing in the race for this title — traditional giants who have already clashed this year in the decisive stages.
It should be noted that Argentina currently plays two championships per year. The first tournament earlier this year — the Copa de la Liga Profesional — is on a playoff basis, with a separation into two groups of fourteen followed by a knockout phase to decide the champion, which was won by Boca Juniors.
But the outstanding team of the competition were Racing, from the football heartland of Avellaneda, just over the river from Buenos Aires. In the semifinals they came up against Boca. Racing were by some distance the better team. But they could not score, and after a 0-0 draw the game went to a shootout. Boca emerged victorious, and went on to beat Tiger 3-0 in the final.
The current Liga Profesional de Futbol is a traditional league format, the 28 first-division teams all playing each other once. And it is once more a case of Boca and Racing.
On Tuesday, Racing put themselves in the lead when a late goal from combative centre-forward Enzo Copetti gave them a 1-0 win away to Lanus. But on Thursday, Boca had their noses in front. Two weeks ago their visit to Gimnasia had to be abandoned early amid worrying scenes when the police lost control of the crowd outside the ground and tear gas drifted into the stadium. On Thursday, the remaining 81 minutes were played, and Boca dug deep to win 2-1.
Going into the last round this Sunday, Boca’s fate is in their hands. They lead Racing by a point. A goal difference of plus six after 26 games tells its story. Boca have been grinding out a succession of narrow victories. Theirs has been a campaign struck by injuries. Key Colombian striker Sebastian Villa has missed plenty of action and is only now gingerly feeling his way back. Former Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo is injured, and is now joined by centre-forward Dario Benedetto. Youngsters have had to grow up quickly. In central midfield, 21-year-old Alan Varela has had to take on responsibility, while 20-year-old winger Luca Langoni has been the find of the season.
Former Boca right-back Hugo Ibarra is doing a sound job in his first senior coaching role — while Racing are coached by an even younger ex-Boca star. Fernando Gago is just 36, having returned to his native land after playing at Real Madrid, AS Roma and Valencia. One of the bright spots in current Argentina football is the number of recently retired players who are now promising coaches, and Gago might be the best of the lot.
There is fire in his eyes, perhaps born of frustration. His career on the pitch was good. But without a succession of injuries it could have been great. There is plenty, then, that he still wants to achieve, and his Racing side are fiercely competitive. Few could begrudge Racing their lap of honor Sunday. Over the entire year they have been the best team, and they deserve a trophy.
But that one-point advantage puts Boca in the driving seat — that and the identity of Sunday’s opponents. In the final round Boca host Independiente — a club whose stadium is just a few yards away from Racing. The pair, of course, are bitter rivals, leading to an obvious question; will Independiente be prepared to give their all to stop Boca winning — and thereby help Racing to the title?
By a quirk of fate and the fixture calendar, Racing are in a similar situation. They are at home to River Plate, the historic rivals of Boca, and they also may lack a little motivation. But if Boca win their match, this will have no relevance. The title will be decided. There is one way that the action can go on beyond Sunday. If Boca lose their game and Racing draw, then the two teams will be level on points.
In that case, the two teams would have to meet in a decider. It is unlikely. But it would be in keeping with the « Wacky Races » feel of the campaign should there be any Dick Dastardly-esque antics, and it would set up a thrilling conclusion to the league season.