Friday, November 12, 2010
Roman returns as the gladiators prepare to do battle
After the will-he, won't-he saga surrounding his contract negotiations, after the repeated demonstrations, in nearly every match, of how much his team are missing him, and after a long injury layoff, Juan Roman Riquelme returned for Boca Juniors on Saturday. Perhaps fittingly, he did so against his first club, Argentinos Juniors - who also happen to be the club that current Boca manager Claudio Borghi took to the title back in May.
It's a mark of how poor Boca are at present that, after six months without a match, Riquelme was head and shoulders above the rest of the team. All the same, his efforts weren't enough. When Argentinos goalkeeper Nicolas Navarro tipped a curling, dipping shot just over the bar deep into the second half, it was clear it wasn't going to be a fairytale return. And then Argentinos popped up with two goals in the final five minutes to totally spoil the script, and win 2-0.
Even with Riquelme returning to Boca, though, the sports headlines were quickly cleared, because in his next assignment he and his team-mates have bigger fish to fry. Riquelme's second match back is the derby to end them all. It's the superclasico, as Boca visit their most bitter rivals, River Plate.
The match won't be played until Tuesday - a consequence of concerts from Paul McCartney and the Jonas Brothers taking up River's El Monumental stadium during this week and the weekend. That happened because the super was originally scheduled for last weekend, but was put back by a week - along with the rest of the league calendar - by the AFA's decision to cancel the football fixtures the weekend after Nestor Kirchner's death, which I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago.
All the same, the media build-up started on Monday morning, and as ever it's like a snowball rolling downhill, picking up mass and speed as it continues on its way. The fact that, both on paper and in terms of the two teams' on-pitch form, this looks like being the worst super in a very long time is being ignored by everyone.
To some extent, though, it'll be an unknown quantity. I've already written this year about River Plate's recent struggles, but on Monday it all got too much for club president Daniel Passarella, and he sacked the second manager of a presidency that isn't yet 12 months old. Angel Cappa was told that the previous day's 1-0 defeat to All Boys (who are newly-promoted but having a great season and had already deservedly beaten both Boca and league-leaders Estudiantes) was the final straw.
Cappa might, as he afterwards said, "have stayed true to River's football principles" in sticking to an attacking game, but it was infused with a naivety and an utter lack of decision in the final third which, too often, caused them to drop points. Cappa left having not won in seven matches, and had only been in charge for 18 games. He's replaced temporarily by J.J. Lopez, a midfielder who spent the first 11 years of his career with the club but, in 1983, played a few matches for Boca. As such, with former River playmaker Borghi on the Boca bench, both sides will be taking to the pitch managed by men who once played, albeit briefly, for the opposition.
That's a curiosity that might not apply when the teams next meet, because the managerial status of both clubs is in considerable flux at present, and it's all affected, too, by events across the Andes.
Marcelo Bielsa, the Argentine manager of the Chilean national side who so impressed during qualifying and at the World Cup this year, announced last week that he'd resign his charge if Jorge Segovia, the Spaniard who was standing to succeed Harold Mayne-Nicholls as president of the country's football governing body won the vote. "I'm opposed to Segovia's way of working," he'd said. In spite of the enormous respect Bielsa commands in Chile as a result his time in charge of the side, the vote did indeed go Segovia's way. Segovia is also an ally of the country's President, Sebastian Pinera.
Why does that affect River and Boca? First of all because Bielsa has now become Passarella's first preference to be the next permanent River manager, even though he's not considered likely to accept the job, and will in any case not be able to leave his role with Chile until January 15, when Mayne-Nicholls officially hands over the keys to the ANFP's head office to Segovia.
Secondly, because Boca boss Borghi had a massively successful spell in charge of Colo-Colo before moving to Argentinos, his family still live in Santiago. The public's choice as next Chile boss, he appears unsettled at Boca, and he's often said in interviews that he feels 'half-Chilean'.
Above all, this is the spectre of both sides' form. After a few barren years, they're both so awful that even a win in the only domestic club match that truly paralyses the country won't be enough to save their year. Boca will hope Riquelme's decent showing last weekend translates into a performance in the biggest match of all because, if not, they look bereft of ideas. River, sorry for themselves, and with a manager who has no idea how long he'll be in charge, merely need something - anything. For the first time in a long time, bragging rights in the superclasico play second fiddle to the simple necessity of getting three points in the fight against relegation.
Six years ago, two epic midweek supers provided the Copa Libertadores with an electrifying semi-final, which Boca won on penalties. Now, it's probably going to be the worst of what looks a pretty uninspiring domestic league round of fixtures. But Riquelme remains Riquelme, and River Plate vs Boca Juniors remains one of the biggest derbies there is. Both player and clubs have been absent from the top table for far too long.