28 August 2012
Argentine clubs have always had a rather complicated relationship with the Copa Sudamericana, universally considered the poor relation to the far more historic and prestigious Libertadores competition. On the one hand, the lesser opposition often faced in the tournament – in many South American countries, participants are made up of those who did not do enough to make the principal Copa – means that victory is a real possibility for clubs who are either not accustomed to continental success or who are far from their best. See Arsenal de Sarandi’s victory in 2007, or the triumph of Independiente in 2010, for perfect examples of both these phenomena.
On the other hand, up to 2011 the fact that teams who entered the Sudamericana were more often than not also competing in the Libertadores in the first half of the year undoubtedly devalued the competition. The Liber was and remains the principal objective, while in the secondary Copa second-string teams or sides made up of reserves and academy graduates were depressingly common in a league with a phobia of the dreaded ‘Two games in one week’ that is somehow considered normal almost everywhere else.
In a rare moment of lucidity, however, the AFA decided from 2012 that the teams making up the Copa Sudamericana contingent would be taken from those who missed out on a taste of Libertadores; hence only Boca, by virtue of winning the Copa Argentina, will appear in both arenas. The first round threw up three fascinating all-Argentina ties, all of which will be decided this week over a two-day football extravaganza.
Of the six teams who will meet on Wednesday and Thursday evening, Racing Club and Argentinos Juniors find themselves in the greatest peril. Leo Astrada’s Bichos Colorados fell to a 2-1 reverse at the hands of Tigre in front of their own fans, and while neither side has enjoyed a positive start domestically – harvesting five points between them in the first four fixtures – Rodolfo Arruabuena’s Clausura runners-up and relegation escape artists start as firm favourites with Youwin and look a safe bet to make the last 16.
Racing, meanwhile, find themselves in a quandary. Luis Zubeldia’s decision to play a full-strength side away to Colón backfired in the first leg when the Inicial leaders inflicted a comprehensive 3-1 defeat on La Academia, a result that could have been much more painful if not for the acrobatics of Jorge de Olivera in goal. The Santa Fé side are on a roll and remain unbeaten in all competitions this season, and an ageing Racing side start as outsiders as they try to reverse the two-goal deficit without adding to an ever-growing injury list.
The highlight of the week’s action, meanwhile, comes at the home of Racing’s eternal rivals Independiente as they host Boca. The side is in crisis mode, having sacked coach Cristian Diaz after just four league games, two points and zero goals, while new man Americo Gallego will only assume command for a third spell after Wednesday’s match. The quality is there, however, as demonstrated in a cracking 3-3 draw in La Bombonera which gives the Rojo a slight advantage over the Libertadores semi-finalists.
Just like a wounded tiger though, Independiente have every reason to be wary of the Xeneize. Julio Falcioni took a decision almost unprecedented in Sudamericana history; he rested his star names at the weekend in order to arrive in Avellaneda fresh and raring to go. This commitment demonstrates how, from a mere distraction, the Copa is finally starting to gain some caché in the South American nation, and fans can expect a pulsating match as Boca chase the continental silverware that has eluded them since 2007.