By John Tilghman
In the history of Argentina’s biggest derby, the Superclasico between River Plate and Boca Juniors, there has perhaps never been a time when both clubs arrived in such poor form. The Buenos Aires giants have long since bid farewell to their title hopes and neither is in contention to reach next year’s Copa Libertadores.
For both teams, the problems do not stop with poor form on the field, but go into the boardroom and coach’s bench.
River Plate president Daniel Passarella sacked coach Angel Cappa after his team fell to promoted side All Boys, but what he did not anticipate was that his top two candidates would turn down the job.
Passarella’s former friend and teammate with River and the Argentina National Team Americo Gallego passed up the job due to differences with El Kaiser in recent years, while Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa, who will walk away from that post in January, also ruled himself out.
With no proper coach, youth team coordinator J.J. Lopez has taken up the interim post with the help of Ubaldo “El Pato” Fillol, Argentina’s World Cup winning goalkeeper in 1978. Both Lopez and Fillol are legends at River and beloved by the supporters and club members, but there is still a sense of anger with Passarella for terminating Cappa’s contract without a replacement lined up.
Boca head into the match in slightly better conditions, but the future is uncertain. For starters, Los Xeneizes still have the coach they started the season with, but Claudio Borghi is on the hot seat.
Boca has failed to adapt to Borghi’s unorthodox 3-5-2 system, that features two wingbacks, two holding midfielders, and two out and out strikers up front. Even with the return of talisman Juan Roman Riquelme (photo), Boca lost 2-0 to Argentinos at home last week leaving Borghi on the brink of losing his job, or even possibly walking away to take the soon to be vacant Chilean national team.
Given the many issues plaguing both sides, is the rivalry devalued? No chance. With nothing else to play for, the match will be a final for both sets of players and fans. The winners will walk away from the season with their heads high, while the losers will feel the pressure mount from media, fans, and club directors.
It is difficult to say if one team has the advantage. River will have the crowd support in El Monumental, but the team has been dire in recent weeks, while Boca will have Riquelme, arguably the best player playing outside of Europe when healthy.
Up front, Boca still relies on the goals of historic striker Martin Palermo, who has netted eight times in his career against Los Millonarios, and will be desperate to add to his tally in what will be his final game in El Monumental, the same stadium where his last grasp winner against Peru earned Argentina qualification for the 2010 World Cup.
River welcomes the return of captain Matias Almeyda from over a month of inactivity, and the ex-Lazio and Inter Milan man will be handed the task of marking Riquelme, while Ariel Ortega, River’s other historic icon currently at the club, is expected to begin from the bench.
In place of Ortega, Los Gallinas will rely on the creativity of 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist Diego Buonanotte and bright young youngster Erik Lamela, who has been a transfer target of Barcelona since he was 12.
Regardless of what happens, it is sure to be a show in El Monumental, where the River faithful have been collecting ticker-tape and confetti all week in preparation for the most important match in South America.