In an unusual opening tournament, in which the smaller clubs stood out, Banfield from the Greater Buenos Aires suburb of the same name won the first title in their 114-year history.
Newell’s Old Boys were second and Colon third, while erratic Independiente and last season’s closing champions Velez Sarsfield were the only big clubs in the top six.
With an average of 2.1 goals per game, scoring in the apertura was low. Only Independiente reached the 30-goal mark and almost 70 per cent of matches finished in either draws or with a one-goal margin.
With so many close matches, quite a number of refereeing mistakes decided the outcome of games.
Standards are declining, but perhaps that’s not surprising as, at the last count, some 350 Argentinians were playing their football in other countries around the world.
The low standard also enabled veterans such as Boca Juniors’ Martin Palermo (aged 36) and River Plate duo Marcelo Gallardo (33) and Matias Almeyda (36) to shine.
In addition, none of the six Argentinian clubs reached the Final of the Sudamericana Cup and neither River Plate nor Boca Juniors qualified for this year’s Libertadores Cup. It was the first time since the 1960s that the two leading Buenos Aires clubs had failed to make the continent’s premier club competition.
Critics claim that Banfield were pragmatic and never looked like champions – despite going unbeaten for the first 15 games. But then nor did any other team shine. Banfield had a solid defence, which conceded only 11 goals, and fielded a number of players who had not stood out at other clubs.
Banfield had few stars – unless you count Uruguayan striker Santiago Silva, who was the tournament’s top scorer with 14 of his side’s 25 goals, even though he had never been a prominent scorer at any of his previous clubs.
Banfield’s use of two centre-forwards – Silva with compatriot Sebastian Fernandez – backed up by Walter Erviti and Colombian teenager James Rodriguez proved to be a winning formula.
The question now is will Banfield suffer the same fate as Huracan in last season’s clausura?
Huracan lost a lot of their best players – most of who were only partly owned by the club or on loan – but Banfield coach Julio Falcioni believes his side will avoid a similar fate.
“Ninety per cent of the players are owned by the club and most have contracts for another two seasons,” he said. “Not so Silva, who owns part of his contract, but we are negotiating to keep him at least for another six months.”
The other revelation of the campaign, and perhaps a bigger surprise, were Rosario club Newell’s Old Boys, who finished two points behind Banfield as both clubs lost on the last day.
Newell’s were virtually destroyed by a 14-year spell under corrupt president Eduardo Lopez and were taken over by a hooligan gang. With no funds to pay players or sign replacements for those who left, Newell’s had to recruit from the lower divisions, but the young team unexpectedly played their hearts out.
And what about the “Big Six” clubs who have won 94 of the 116 professional championships?
Closing championship winners Velez Sarsfield looked like carrying on where they left off last season until they trailed off, suffering the fate of many clubs who find they lack the strength in depth to compete in both the league and mid-week cup games.
Boca Juniors were within striking distance of top place at one time, but fell away when midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme was injured and missed the last seven games.
Boca had a long injury list, which was not unexpected given the number of veterans in the team. Goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri also claimed it was difficult to play with coach Alfio Basile’s 4-3-1-2 system, explaining: “One or two midfielders go up, only one is left and teams playing 4-4-2 beat us.”
There were often rifts between the older and younger players at Boca, but the disagreements between club directors were worse and more harmful. Manager Carlos Bianchi sold key men such as Jesus Datolo and Rodrigo Palacio, who were not replaced. While Basile wants new signings, Bianchi prefers to keep first-team places open for youngsters.
River Plate’s poor year was a direct result of continually selling their best players, and even some of their best youngsters. However, transfer fees seemed to disappear into a black hole, leaving debts, and a questionable club committee bought poor replacements.
That could all change as Daniel Passarella, the 1978 World Cup-winning captain and River Plate’s former player and coach, was elected president in December.
He found the coffers empty and announced austerity measures such as no pre-season training trips, but no sale of top players. River Plate will buy players if money appears.
San Lorenzo also have a big debt, but the main complaint here is that coach Diego Simeone, who spent a large part of his playing career in Europe, tries to make the team play a more European style and results have been erratic.
Racing Club, recently out of bankruptcy, continue in the relegation zone. Unless they improve greatly in the clausura, they will face the drop.
At the beginning of the opening championship, under coach Ricardo Caruso Lombardi, a lot of poor-quality players were added to the squad. Then, by the end of the campaign, under Claudio Vivas (assistant to Marcelo Bielsa when he was national team coach), they caused the upset of the season by ending Banfield’s unbeaten record with a 1-0 win. However, Vivas has now put 18 players of the top-heavy playing staff of 44 on the transfer list.