Last Saturday afternoon, Hernan Crespo walked out onto the pitch at River Plate’s Estadio Monumental to a rousing reception. He is a bona fide legend at the club, having won two league titles and a Copa Libertadores with them in the mid-1990s. An hour later, River fans would have been cursing his presence. Crespo is now manager of Defensa y Justicia and his team were 1-0 up. It looked like a River hero might be about to deal a blow to the club’s chances in their thrilling title race with bitter rivals Boca Juniors.
Boca had won the night before, beating Colon with four second-half goals, including one from Carlos Tevez, to move onto the same 45 points as River. With River behind, the Superclasico antagonists were going into the final round of games level in the Superliga. In the Argentinian top division goal difference is irrelevant – if two teams finish level on points after the 23 rounds, the title is decided by a head-to-head playoff at a neutral ground. The possibility was drawing a step closer.
Then, with 25 minutes to go, River attacker Nicolas De La Cruz wriggled free in the penalty area, was brought down and the referee pointed to the spot. Juanfe Quintero’s penalty hit the net, earning a point for the Millonarios. So, River’s fate remains in their hands. If Marcelo Gallardo’s men win on Saturday, away to Atletico Tucuman, River will be champions of Argentina for the first time since 2014.
Yet the potential for a nail-biting finish is very much still on. If River draw, then a Boca win will send the trophy to the Bombonera. If River lose, a Boca draw will make the tantalising possibility of that Superclasico playoff a reality. To add an extra layer to the drama, the man trying to stop Boca from catching River is Diego Maradona. It sounds like a storyline penned by an overly exuberant soap opera writer. Football in Argentina often does.
Maradona is currently back coaching in Argentinian domestic football for the first time since 1995, at Gimnasia de la Plata. When he took over, Gimnasia looked doomed, but improved results and a mid-season change to relegation rules has given them hope. Relegation will only be decided after the Copa de la Superliga, a tournament designed to fill space owing to the shortened league season. But if Gimnasia beat Boca, they will stand a much better chance of survival.
As if that was not enough to fire up the Gimansia players and manager, Maradona is currently involved in a bitter feud with Boca president Jorge Ameal and his right-hand-man Juan Roman Riquelme. Maradona has made no effort to hide his hatred for Riquelme since the ex-Villarreal midfielder quit the national team when El Diego was coaching them in 2009. At the time, Riquelme said that “my values are not [the same as] his”.
When the Boca Juniors presidential elections rolled round last year, it was of little surprise that the two No.10s were supporting opposing candidates. A war of words ensued, with Maradona saying that for Riquelme the “dollars” were more important than “convictions”. But Riquelme’s man won and Maradona finds himself with diminished influence at the club he supports. Usually, he would beat Boca reluctantly, on Sunday he would savour it.
Even in the build up to this game, Maradona could not resist another little dig at his old foe. “I am a fan of Boca,” he told Argentine media, “but I never quit the national team, I never missed a Boca game, I never missed a Boca training session.”
If Maradona can put the breaks on Boca’s last-gasp push for a second title in three seasons and River get over the line in Tucuman, then it would break a relatively long dry spell for the Millonarios. River last won the national title in 2014, just before their current manager Marcelo Gallardo took charge.
Conversely, the intervening years have been some of the most successful in the club’s history. Gallardo, a team-mate of Crespo in that all-conquering side from the 1990s, has, as manager, led River to two Copa Libertadores, three Copa Argentinas and a Copa Sudamericana. Yet in the league, they have consistently underperformed. When River took top spot from Boca in late January, it was the first time they had led the Primera Division in over 800 days.
For Gallardo, then, this title is doubly important. He has been linked to a host of European giants, most notably Barcelona, owing to his success. But the lack of league trophies in Argentina has always been a question mark against his name. This title could cement his legacy at River before a potential move in the summer and provide a little bit of solace after their traumatic last-minute loss to Flamengo in the Copa Libertadores final in 2019.
So desperate Gallardo to win the league, in fact, that he did not send any first-team players to their mid-week Libertadores group stage fixture away in Ecuador against LDU. Gallardo did not travel either, staying in Buenos Aires to treat the angina from which he has been suffering. River lost 3-0, but Matias Biscay, the assistant who took charge of the team in Quito, was dismissive of the result, telling Olé that, “In 2015 we lost the first game at altitude and in the end were [Libertadores] champions.”
Boca manager Miguel Angel Russo, who only took charge in January, travelled even further with his team for their opening Libertadores fixture on Tuesday, away to Caracas in Venezuela. Whilst Tevez and Eduardo Salvio were spared the arduous journey, a smattering of first teamers started the 1-1 draw and several more were on the bench. It will be interesting to see the physical effects of the respective managers’ differing approaches come the weekend.
Players-turned-pundits on both sides of the Superclasico divide have been talking up their side over the airwaves in Buenos Aires this week. Ex-River forward Fernando Cavenaghi declared to TNT that, “This River team will never lack confidence.” Cristian Traverso, a three-time title winner with the Xeneize, told Crack Deportivo that, “On Saturday, Boca are going to win and will be champions, I have faith.”
On Saturday at 9 p.m. Buenos Aires time, the whole of Argentina will tune in to see who is right.
Atl Tucuman 🆚 River
Boca 🆚 Gimnasia
WINNER TAKES ALL!