ERIC WEIL in BUENOS AIRES: With two matches to go in Argentina’s National Final Championship, eight clubs still have a mathematical if not all a realistic chance of winning the title.
River Plate and Gimnasia y Esgrima de La Plata are joint leaders with a two-point lead over Estudiantes de La Plata and Godoy Cruz but in such a close tournament this week’s games can change positions radically and results are difficult to predict.
If River Plate win the title, it would be the first for them or Boca Juniors – the so-called most popular clubs – in the last six tournaments and the 36th during the professional era (though with the Argentinian federation, the AFA, now counting amateur league titles as well, it would be the 38th).
Meanwhile Gimnasia, the oldest club in the top division (founded in 1887) would collect their first professional league title though a third in total as they won one amateur league and one professional knock-out cup.
If teams share top place, the decision is complicated. The AFA likes to complicate things and has changed the previous rule used in 2008 when three teams shared top place and entered a triangular playoff.
If two clubs share top place they will meet in one playoff for the title in a neutral stadium. If three or more teams share top place on points, the winner would be the club which obtained most points during the tournament against the others.
If still tied, goal difference between would count and then, if necessary, goal difference during the entire championship. The AFA did not say what then in the unlikely event that the tie remains.
Back in form
A tie at the top is not so unlikely even if River Plate, erratic at times, have the easier programme away to already relegated Argentinos Juniors and home to Qulmes, still in danger of the drop. Gimnasia visit Quilmes and then play at Boca Juniors who look like regaining a semblance of form.
If Gimnasia y Esgrima win the title, it would be a rare case of a club gaining promotion one season and winning the championship in the next season.
The La Plata club did not make a wholesale changes but relied on the basis of the squad who won promotion. Some other promotion winners sign practically a new team which may or may not work. As a result, Gimnasia knew their own limitations and beat rivals with better team work. A streak of six wins in a row and a draw in the last one could well take them to the title.
If River Plate improved in the latter part of the season with a 6-2-1 record in their last nine games, it must be mainly that coach Ramón Díaz made fewer team changes just to find a winning team.
River Plate will return to international play next season in the Copa Sudamericana and/or the Libertadores Cup if they win the title, so what of the future? They always have good junior players. In last weekend’s match against Racing Club seven of their players on the pitch at the final whistle started at the club as juniors.
Trouble is, they keep trying to repatriate former stars past their best in Europe, such as striker Fernando Cavenaghi of whom surely more was expected than six goals in the current tournament.
Now they want to bring back midfielder Pablo Aimar (34) and are thinking of others such as Inter Porto Alegre midfielder D’Alessandro who is still in form and unlikely to come to earn less at River Plate.
Although Boca Juniors looks like improving, having just won three matches in a row, the club which makes too many mistakes, will not have the same squad next season.
The main question is whether Juan Román Riquelme be among them. Even though he has been the star of the team and idol of the fans for years, the committee does not want to renew his contract and now it seems he may not want to stay either.
The committee is against his causing a division among the players, his age (35) and his frequent injuries which let him play only half the games. Yet this columnist considers it would be another mistake not to renew his contract, depending agreement on financial matters.
In spite of his no longer being in top form, he still makes a big difference when he plays.
One official said that to be able to sign new players, Boca would have to sell some. The trouble is they have sold some good ones and then signed the wrong replacements who failed to live up to expectations.
Several other players want to leave, including useful Juan Manuel Martínez and Juan Sánchez Miño. But what about the many good juniors? Last weekend’s team, who beat All Boys, included eight players who had come up from the junior divisions.
Clubs would do a lot better with them than sign players who may be stars at their clubs, but fail at another club for a variety of reasons.
Meanwhile AFA chief Julio Grondona, who invented next year’s new 30-club national championship, said it would be “calmer and more serene”, words which seem as silly as the whole idea.
He calmed club officials worried about the extra cost not to worry “as that problem is 95pc resolved and will be fixed by July 4,” but without further explanation.
Other AFA sources say that apart from the £82m yearly which the government pays for free TV, further funds are needed.
Grondona’s idea is results betting on-line but probably would not suffice. He met government officials again this week at which apparently the on-line betting was not approved and there was absolute refusal to increase the TV fee and the five extra matches could not be televised.