06 October 2012
As the Inicial stage reaches its milestone 10th fixture this weekend, fans wait in anticipation for the games that will mark the halfway stage of the season. Or is it quarter? That was the plan anyway, a single year-long championship aping those fairly successful leagues in Europe you might have heard about, crowning just one triumphant winner in June in a brave new era for Argentine football. In the end, however, one champion a year just wasn’t enough for Julio Grondona and the AFA, who quickly backtracked meaning the only real difference at the top for those teams fighting for the title is the name of the trophy they will hope to pick up by the end of 2012.
Thankfully, the somewhat farcical build-up to the Inicial has been overshadowed by a gripping race at the top currently unfolding. Just four points separate seven teams at the summit, but three mammoth clashes at the weekend involving all but one of those will go a long way to separating the wheat from the chaff as we reach the season’s home straight. Kicking off the action is an unmissable encounter in Santa Fe as Racing visit Colón.
There will be more than revenge on the minds of Luis Zubeldia’s men as they prepare for a daunting test in the Elephants’ Graveyard. The Avellaneda side have already fallen twice to Colón in the last two months, losing 3-1 and 2-1 to crash out of the Copa Sudamericana at the first hurdle. But the Racing team that will take the field on Saturday is a rather different prospect. Inspirational goalkeeper Sebastian Saja is back from injury and has kept two clean sheets in a row, a pair of clásico victories against fellow big boys River Plate and San Lorenzo to send La Academia up to joint second – ‘El Chino’ even went up the other end to score last time round, a perfect penalty to set in motion a 4-0 humiliation of San Lorenzo. Confidence is high, and with the knowledge that three points will put them, at least temporarily, at the top Racing will be desperate to take advantage and end their sufferings against the Sabalero.
If that game was not enough to whet supporters’ appetites, they are in for a treat on Sunday. First-placed Newell’s Old Boys take on joint-second Vélez in a game that promises to be one of the best so far, bringing together the two most coherent, consistent teams in Argentina. Two points clear of the chasing pack going in, Gerardo Martino’s side have yet to taste defeat so far and could take a big jump towards a title challenge with victory in Rosario. But Vélez can never be written off, and with the longest-serving coach in the entire Primera as well as an enviable youth system and stability, no-one will be betting against the Fortín repeating their successful campaigns of 2009 and 2011 come December.
One more clash of the 2012 titans finishes the action for Sunday, and just like the two matches above it promises to be a thriller. Just one point separates Belgrano and Boca Juniors after the first nine clashes, the 2011 Apertura winners sitting just above their Córdoba hosts within touching distance of the front-runners. All is not well at the Bombonera, however. Defeat against Lanús followed by a tepid home draw with San Martin have intensified the pressure on coach Julio Falcioni, with several players speaking out about the lack of Juan Roman Riquelme affecting matters on the pitch and one, inspirational midfielder Pablo Ledesma, finding himself well and truly in the trainer’s bad books because of his loose tongue. Belgrano, meanwhile, have made a habit of taking down the Grandes since returning to the top flight last year, and will be itching to add Boca’s name to an already impressive list of scalps and record their fourth victory in the last five outings. Halfway, quarterway, we might not be sure; but what is certain is that the next few days will be unmissable for anyone who loves the chaotic world of Argentine football.
by Dan Edwards