The country’s two best-known teams are off the pace in the domestic championship after a 1-1 derby draw.

By Eric Weil in Buenos Aires
The country’s two best-known teams are off the pace in the domestic championship after a 1-1 derby draw

Boca Juniors and River Plate drew 1-1 at Boca’s Bombonera stadium in the first classic derby of the 2009 season, leaving Boca still leading by 67 wins to 61 in their 184 meetings. Veterans Martin Palermo and Angel Gallardo scored for Boca and River respectively, but it did not do much for either club in challenging for the title of the closing championship. River lamented Radamel Falcao missing an open goal and Boca the absence of injured Riquelme.

Boca Juniors coach Carlos Ischia had long ago announced his intention of preferring the Libertadores Cup (for whose second round they had virtually qualified with a 100 per cent record) to the domestic tournament, in which he fielded reserve teams on several occasions.

Using the global financial crisis as an excuse, Boca Juniors said that they will lower player contracts in June, also converting them from dollars to pesos to take advantage of the peso’s falling value. After protests they relented but announced that in June they plan to sell several players – including striker Rodrigo Palacio – and buy little.

One player they will not try to sell is playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, although his reported annual £4million contract is the biggest. His salary is being paid by Spain’s Villarreal with whom he is under contract until June 2010. The deal is that after that he would play for Boca for nothing for a year.

River Plate, meanwhile, were six points from the top, but not playing like title challengers. Overweight striker Cristian Fabbiani still gets tremendous press for no apparent reason. He has only scored 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.”

Maradona seemed to agree when he picked a team of home-based players as a national B team with four from Boca and none from River.

River can at least concentrate of their domestic challenge after they crashed out of the Libetardores Cup following a shock 4-2 defeat away to Paraguay’s Nacional. Previously, the Paraguayans had not won a game and had already been eliminated from their group.

River’s third straight away defeat left them with only four points from five games. Falcao had given them the lead in Asuncion when he converted 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 for a bad tackle in the 58th minute and they conceded three second-half goals.

Topping the closing championship at the halfway stage were Velez Sarsfield, who have not played outstanding football, but were well organised under 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 strangely 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, who seemed to be down and out, moved away from relegation danger under coach Caruso Lombardi, winning four of their last 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 a new coach (Diego Simeone) and significant team changes. Not unexpectedly, the team slumped and coach Miguel Russo left. Russo was the eighth coach to leave in 10 games of the closing championship. While the movement of coaches can still not be compared to that in Brazil, te merry-go-round is still a cause for concern.

Reinaldo Merlo left Rosario Central after only five games in charge and was replaced immediately by Russo, while Julio Falcioni returned to Banfield who had also earlier dismissed him.

Simeone, under whom River Plate finished bottom in the opening championship, took over at San Lorenzo.