Honours even in the big Buenos Aires derby but the country’s two best-known teams are making few waves in the domestic championship.

By Eric Weil in Buenos Aires
Even though they are off the pace in the closing championship, the first classic derby of 2009 between Boca Juniors and River Plate at the Bombonera was as eagerly anticipated as ever.

It ended all square at 1-1 in the 184th edition of the superclasico, River’s Marcelo Gallardo equalising Martin Palermo’s opener to leave Boca still leading by 67 wins to 61.

Boca coach Carlos Ischia had long ago announced his intention to concentrate on the Libertadores Cup rather than the domestic tournament and has fielded a below-strength team on several occasions.

Using the global financial crisis as an excuse, Boca also said they would lower player contracts in June, also converting them from dollars to pesos to take advantage of the local currency’s falling value. They relented after protests, but instead plan to sell several players – including striker Rodrigo Palacio – and buy little.

One player they will try to hang on to, however, is playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, even though he earns a reported £4million a year. At present his salary is being paid by Spain’s Villarreal, with whom he is under contract until June 2010, and the deal is that after that he would play for Boca for a year for nothing River Plate, meanwhile, may have title aspirations but are not looking anything like challengers.

Overweight striker Cristian Fabbiani still gets tremendous press for no apparent reason. He has scored only one goal in a dozen games and former River player Sergio Berti noted: “If that fat guy is the club’s idol, it’s because they have nothing.”

Diego Maradona seemed to agree when he picked a national B team of home-based players, including four from Boca but none from River.

River will at least now be able to concentrate all of their efforts on their domestic challenge after they crashed out of the Libertadores Cup following a shock 4-2 defeat in Asuncion by Paraguay’s Nacional, who had not previously won a game in this year’s tournament and had already been eliminated from their group.

River’s third straight away defeat left them with only four points from five games. Radamel Falcao Garcia had given them the lead from a penalty after a foul on Fabbiani. But the hosts levelled in first-half stoppage time and River fell apart after Diego Buonanotte was sent off in the 59th minute.

Velez unbeaten
Topping the closing championship table at the halfway stage were Velez Sarsfield, who, while not outstanding, have been well organised by coach Ricardo Gareca and were the only unbeaten team. Trailing by a point were small clubs Colon and Lanus – the latter arguably playing the best football. But they could not put a foot right in the Libertadores Cup and were eliminated without winning a game.

Their form has not been the only surprise. Racing Club, seemingly down and out, moved away from relegation danger under Caruso Lombardi, winning four of five games by 1-0 with a lot of fighting spirit and a little luck.

San Lorenzo, in the opening championship title play-off five months earlier, were next-to-bottom with much the same squad. But a club official, who had organised a group of investors to buy players, announced that for next season there would be significant team changes. Not unexpectedly, the team slumped and coach Miguel Russo left.

Russo was the eighth coach to leave his club in 10 games of the clausura. While this merry-go-round can still not be compared to that in Brazil, it is still a cause for concern.

Reinaldo Merlo left Rosario Central after only five games and was replaced immediately by Russo, while Julio Falcioni, dismissed by Banfield, was soon back in charge there again. l