Argentine eyes turn to Superclasico
You might have heard there's a long-running and world-famous derby rivalry which will see one more match added to the head-to-head record between its participants on Sunday. You'd have heard wrong, if so; there are actually two. A few hours after Everton host Liverpool, almost half a world away, most eyes in Argentina will be fixed on televisions across the country as River Plate host Boca Juniors in the fixture known here as the Superclasico.
Even when these sides aren't protagonists in the title race (going into the twelfth round out of nineteen in the Torneo Inicial, Boca are fifth and River eleventh, although the congestion in the middle of the table is illustrated by the fact they're just three points apart), this is still the biggest match of the month by a huge distance, even though last weekend saw second-placed Racing host still unbeaten leaders Newell's Old Boys, and Saturday night will bring Racing's visit to third-placed Velez Sarsfield. After all, no other match-up brings together the sides who each claim roughly a third of the country's fans for their own.
It's such an important fixture for Argentine football (and in that I include, of course, the media and the Argentine FA's domestic and international TV deals) that when River Plate were relegated last year, the Copa Argentina was resurrected, having not been played since the 1970 edition - the second - was abandoned without the final being disputed. All the main Clasico rivals were kept apart in the draw, the fairly barefaced hope being that River and Boca would meet in the final. In the event, River were knocked out by Racing Club (another of Argentina's 'Big Five') on penalties in the semi-final. Thanks to that, the sides haven't met competitively in almost a year and a half.
As I wrote a few months ago after River returned to the Primera with a 2-0 win over Almirante Brown on the last day of the second division season, the countdown to River's return to the top flight began the moment their relegation was confirmed. You can be sure that the return of the Superclasico has been as eagerly awaited. And while there were a couple of summer friendlies back in January, they were only plasters on the wound, for River fans in particular.
That wait, and the hurt of River's season in 'La B', is what makes this Sunday's match a tasty one even by this fixture's normal, incredibly overheated, standards. Relegation brought taunts and banner posters from Boca and their fans across Buenos Aires. Similar goading followed their first defeat in the second division, and was heightened by Boca's own league title in last year's Torneo Apertura, and a subsequent impressive run in the Copa Libertadores (River fans, if they had any consolation in all this, could at least be thankful that Boca lost rather than won in the final.
Going into this match, although Boca are higher up the table, there's less of a feeling of momentum behind them. Boca manager Julio Cesar Falcioni has come in for much criticism for his perceived dull brand of football, even though the club's results have been dramatically better under him than for at least a couple of years before he took charge. Stagnation has set in, and increasingly loud whispers around the club indicate he won't be in charge when the 2013 Torneo Final kicks off in February.
River Plate boss Matias Almeyda's job was on the line just a month ago, but back-to-back thrashings - first of champions Arsenal de Sarandi, 4-0 away; then of Godoy Cruz, 5-0 back in the Monumental - have brought back a lot of good will for him, to the extent that last weekend's 1-0 defeat away to fellow promoted side (and, because of Argentina's bizarre relegation system, direct relegation rivals) Quilmes has been seen, largely, as more of an irritating blip than a need to ratchet up the pressure.
For both managers, this will be their first meaningful Superclasico, and there will be plenty of players who are new, or relatively new, to the fixture as well. In fact on Boca's side, one or two will be in crucial positions, because this is the first in which neither Martin Palermo nor Juan Roman Riquelme will play a part since the second leg of the 2004 Copa Libertadores semi-final (when Carlos Tevez was memorably sent off for celebrating what he thought was a last-minute equaliser/aggregate winner by impersonating a chicken, in mocking homage to River's nickname, Gallinas ('hens') - River equalised in stoppage time and Boca eventually went through on penalties).
The reliance for such a long time on those two ageing legends, and Falcioni's poor fortune in finding truly effective replacements - particularly for Riquelme, who announced after this year's Libertadores final that he wouldn't play for the club again - is one of the factors behind Boca's internal entropy this season, and whether young stars such as playmaker Leandro Paredes or full-back Emiliano Albin are able to step up could be vital for them. One good performance and these boys could catapult themselves into the global spotlight.
Another player will also be playing in his first Superclasico and, as a boyhood River fan, will be more than aware of the enormous pressure the fixture brings with it. If anyone can deal with that pressure, though, it will surely be World Cup and European Championship-winner David Trezeguet, whose goals brought River back to the top flight in that match back in June.
Having only played for nearby club Platense as a teenager prior to his move to France, and having scored just once since River's return to the Primera, Trezeguet will be hoping he can bring his experience to bear on Sunday, at the end of a week in which he's been training back in Monaco, having had to fly to France for divorce proceedings during the week.
Whether the hero ends up being Trezeguet or one of the younger guns, or whether, as might well happen, the football takes second billing to the atmosphere generated and the cards handed out by referee Pablo Lunati (who might just be the most narcissistic man in Argentine football - seriously), we shall see. But one thing's for sure: this Superclasico isn't just any other. River are back, and feel they have a point to prove.