Tom Robinson looks back at the latest edition of the Primera as an extended season finished with Boca Juniors and Carlos Tevez sealing silverware.
The bloated, unwieldy 30 team Primera spluttered to a close with Boca Juniors claiming their first league title in four years. The expanded top flight, a parting ‘gift’ from the autocratic former AFA president Julio Grondona, saw a switch to a year-long tournament for the first time since 1991 with the top ten teams of the Primera B promoted. But after just one year, this format will be put out to pasture as a more manageable alternative is worked towards; a process that could take up to five years. Bigger isn’t always better, and so it proved with this uniquely Argentine concoction.
Nevertheless, Boca, having had to watch cross city rivals River hoover up silverware of late, will welcome the latest addition to their trophy cabinet. By no means the most convincing of champions, los Xeneizes did win 11 out of their last 15 to hold off nearest challengers San Lorenzo and Rosario Central, wrapping the title up in the penultimate week with a 1-0 win over Tigre in front of a bouncing Bombonera.
Three days later, Boca added the Copa Argentina to their haul with an extremely controversial win over Rosario Central. The first of three contentious decisions came when Central had a Marco Ruben header ruled out for a questionable offside call on Marcelo Larrondo and then, to make matters worse, referee Diego Ceballos gave a ridiculous penalty after Gino Peruzzi was brought down a couple of metres outside the box. Nicolas Lodeiro tucked away the resultant spot kick in what proved to be the turning point of the tie. The fact that Boca’s second, an injury-time tap in from Andres Chavez, also looked to be marginally offside further fuelling the sense of injustice. Conspiracy theories abounded as the Buenos Aires bigwigs got one over the provincial upstarts.
This polemic conclusion to the year threatened to tarnish and overshadow an impressive achievement for a Boca side emerging from a prolonged period of transition. Boca began the season in fine form, unbeaten in their first ten league games and romping through an admittedly kind Libertadores group with a 100% record. The omens looked good. However, a torrid month in May, which saw elimination from the Libertadores at the hands of River – or, more accurately, their own ‘fans’ – and league losses to Aldosivi and Velez, quickly threatened to derail their season though.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it was the return of people’s champion Carlos Tevez that proved to be the difference. Aside from representing the biggest repatriation of a star player in their prime since at least Juan Sebastian Veron or Maxi Rodriguez, the timing of Tevez’s move shortly after the Champions League final with Juventus and his cult status at one of the biggest clubs in the country heightened the prodigious nature of the transfer. Inevitably, his extra touch of class gave Boca the edge.
9 goals in 17 games might not seem an overly impressive stat but serial winner Tevez offered more than goals alone. No-one benefitted more from the space and opportunities created by the Apache than young strike partner Jonathan Calleri – scorer of arguably golazo of the season against Quilmes and the increased belief, confidence and purpose throughout the team was palpable whenever the bullish forward was on the pitch. Tevez’s ability to turn potential draws into victory, such as the 1-0 victory against Crucero del Norte, was key in Boca’s run in and the fact that they won ten of the twelve league games in which he featured speaks volumes.
Tevez’s fairytale return aside, it won’t be a championship that lives long in the memory. Punctuated by ill-discipline both on-field (three red cards and a leg breaking challenge by goalkeeper Agustin Orion for example) and off the field (the Libertadores superclasico pepper spray incident), as well as the media circus surrounding Dani Osvaldo, Boca’s performances were often laboured and inconsistent, even if the results kept rolling in. The 3-1 loss against Racing in which Boca ended with nine men was a case in point and left the door open for Central’s late assault on the title.
Though Tevez certainly helped refocus and take pressure of Rodolfo Arruabarrena, there were other positives too. The team benefitted from a more settled and reliable defence, the extra class of Pablo Perez and Nicolas Lodeiro in midfield and the emergence of good prospects such as Calleri, Andres Cubas and Rodrigo Bentancur. As much as it will be remembered as Tevez’s title, it wasn’t all Carlitos’ way.
For most of the season Boca’s main title contenders came in the form of San Lorenzo, who recaptured the resolute, hard-to-beat form that won the Libertadores in 2014. Typical of Edgardo Bauza’s approach, el Ciclon‘s success was founded on a solid defence – the best in the league – and strong spine with the added creativity of Sebastian Blanco and a fully fit Martin Cauteruccio up front. Indeed, the 1-0 win against Boca in the 23rd week looked to have dealt a decisive blow in the title race but in the round of clasicos a week later a surprise loss to Huracan, while Boca defeated River, turned out to be costly and subsequent draws against Tigre and Rosario Central saw the prize slip from their grasp. Bauza departs having enjoyed a successful spell with los Cuervos, crowned by their maiden Libertadores win in 2014, and it is expected that Palestino boss Pablo Guede will be the next man through the door.
Elsewhere, dark horses Rosario Central were early frontrunners and, with a very good squad assembled, kept the heat on throughout but ultimately fell just short despite an excellent end to the season. In top scorer Marco Ruben the Canalla had the league’s best striker and also boasted the breakthrough talent of the year, pint-sized playmaker Franco Cervi, who will move to Benfica next summer. Despite only losing three times all year, too many drawn games meant they had to settle for third and had to deal with the added heartbreak of a second consecutive Copa Argentina defeat in the cruellest of circumstances. A case of close but no cigar in what was otherwise a very impressive debut season for Eduardo ‘Chacho’ Coudet.
Avellaneda duo Racing and Independiente had decent seasons, finishing 4th and 5th respectively, without ever really challenging, while River were in contention early on but the understandable distraction of their successful Libertadores campaign and following Sudamericana defence resulted in a drastic league slump, with the Millonarios finishing a distant 9th. Attention will now shift to the Club World Cup and a potential clash with Barcelona as Gallardo’s men attempt to rally themselves for one last hurrah in what has been a packed, draining year of football.
Noteworthy performances came from sixth place Belgrano who were always difficult to beat and in Renzo Saravia, Lucas Zelarrayan and Emiliano Rigoni have some interesting prospects on their books. Banfield were one of the most enjoyable sides to watch, epitomised by the salsa hips of Colombian winger-cum-forward Mauricio Cuero, and Union de Santa Fe were the best of the promoted sides with free kick specialist Ignacio Malcorra one of the revelations, although they did lose momentum after the sale of striker Enrique Triverio midway through the season.
There were a number of other promoted sides who fared better than expected as the likes of Aldosivi and Sarmiento were all surprisingly competitive, while Huracan, with the excellently nicknamed Wanchope Abila up front, managed a surprisingly lengthy run in the Sudamericana despite lingering near the bottom of the league for most of the season. Conversely, established teams such as Newell’s, Lanus and particularly Velez massively underperformed, the latter balancing books and fielding youngsters, banking on avoiding relegation due to the sheer size of the new league.
At the bottom, Crucero del Norte were by far the worst, losing all away their matches and playing their home games on a pitch of ludicrously long grass. By the end of the season they had given up and were preparing for life in the B. Nueva Chicago were terrible for majority of the season and looked dead and buried but made an inspiring late surge of five straight wins to take it to a final day showdown. It proved to be just too little too late but the Mataderos side went down with pride intact.
On a sombre note, this year also saw a spate of football related deaths and injuries. Emanuel Ortega of fifth tier San Martin de Burzaco died after colliding with a wall during a game while Barracas Central striker Javier Rossi was lucky to escape the same fate after a hauntingly similar accident. Atletico Parana’s Cristian Gomez and Huracan de Carlos Tejedor’s Maximiliano Gil both suffered fatal heart attacks on the pitch and Lanus defender Diego Barisone died in a road traffic accident. We can only hope that all of the families of these players were able to consult with professional lawyers, whether it be for personal injury or a car accident like Diego. This must have been a horrible experience for the families, but hopefully, their lawyers will have supported them throughout the process and case. But, there are still things to be decided within Football. Mainly, with the new AFA president election still to be decided, surely these factors must be a top priority for the incoming leader.
As ever, football relentlessly ploughs on and even though the league is over, there is still the matter of deciding the final spots for next year’s Libertadores and Sudamericana. Nothing is ever simple in Argentine football and two knock-out Liguillas will whittle down a host of teams ranging from 4th to 20th to decide who gets continental football. As for the domestic league, it takes a break until February where there will be another transitional ‘short’ tournament before the start of a proposed year-long season in line with the European calendar. One things for certain, there’s never a dull moment in Argentinian football. Unless you’re a Crucero del Norte fan that is.
Written by Tom Robinson