Last weekend Estudiantes clinched the Torneo Apertura title, and as Sam Kelly reports, they were undoubtedly worthy winners.
Another campaign ends, and another title has been decided in Argentina, but just for a change it's a familiar name at the top of the Torneo Apertura table. Familiar, that is, in the sense of not being a massive surprise to those of us who might have been foolhardy enough to try and predict a champion at the start of the season. The previous eight short championships had thrown up eight different winners, and now it's come full circle: Estudiantes, the first of those eight, have claimed their fifth Argentine league title.
They did it with a 2-0 win at home to Arsenal de Sarandí on the final weekend, rendering Vélez Sarsfield's impressive 2-0 win away to Racing meaningless in spite of Vélez forward Juan Manuel Martínez scoring probably the goal of the year early on to open the scoring. Estudiantes were nervous and looked laboured for much of their match, until in the last quarter of an hour Rodrigo López popped up with two goals to hand the title to former Sheffield United and Leeds midfielder Alejandro Sabella and his charges.
It's a richly deserved crown for Estudiantes, who are often referred to in Anglophone quarters as 'Seba Verón's Estudiantes' but in fact have so many more dimensions than the admittedly still imperious veteran. Estudiantes don't play the most beautiful, expansive football in the league – that prize over the last four months probably goes to Godoy Cruz of Mendoza, of whom more later – but have, over the last few years, been the most consistent side and have always had, to my mind, the best transfer between defence and attack, been the best at switching quickly between their off the ball strategy and that which they employ when in possession.
They're a balanced team, neither defensive nor out-and-out attacking, not looking to intimidate or brutalise opponents in the manner of their infamous forebears (including Juan Sebastián Verón's dad Juan Ramón) of the late 1960s, who won the club's first professional title in 1967 and followed it up with their first three Copas Libertadores in '68, '69 and '70. They have also, unusually in Argentina, managed to keep a solid core of players for the last few years, and maintained the same philosophy under first Diego Simeone and then, when he left for River Plate after claiming the 2006 Apertura, Alejandro Sabella, who immediately led the club to their fourth Copa Libertadores.
Players like Pablo Piatti – who this past weekend scored a couple of brilliant goals for Almería in Spain – will always move on eventually, and they also lost full back Marcos Angeleri and forward Mauro Boselli to Sunderland and Birmingham City at the start of the season, but the core of Estudiantes' side are settled and work well together to such an extent that, as Sabella put it, 'we've won the league without any forwards!' That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's fair to say that former River Plate forward Gastón Fernández, who's capable of dropping deep and pulling the strings from just behind the line when necessary, hasn't been able to play as much as he might have done. Much of the work replacing him has been done by wide men like Enzo Pérez and Leandro Benítez. With Verón and the more destructive Rodrigo Braña forming a solid partnership in central midfield, and Leandro Desábato immense at the heart of defence, Estudiantes finished champions because they had all the bases covered.
It's to Vélez Sarsfield's great credit that they pushed Estudiantes all the way, albeit from a couple of points further down the table for the last few weeks. Vélez's campaign was built largely on the dual battering ram of their two forwards, Uruguayan Santiago Silva, a man who's played for more clubs than you've had hot dinners, and Argentine Juan Manuel Martínez, a 25-year-old who's already got seven years of first team football under his belt and scored that fantastic solo goal on Sunday to open the scoring against Racing. Vélez only conceded one goal more than Estudiantes – nine to the champions' eight – and scored one more, but the importance of these two to their challenge can be summed up by the fact that Silva finished top scorer, with eleven goals, and Martínez was joint second with ten. Estudiantes' highest scorer was Fernández, who got six.
Maxi Moralez was the creative spark behind those two floating in front of Vélez's midfield, but was overshadowed in the playmaking stakes by those from other clubs this term. In particular Banfield's Walter Erviti had a superb campaign and crowned it with a goal – albeit in vain – as his side lost their last match 2-1 away to San Lorenzo. Racing's lanky Colombian playmaker Giovanni Moreno, though, has been perhaps the revelation of the tournament in that role, to the extent that after just nineteen matches the Avellaneda club – who only missed out on a Copa Libertadores spot due to their bitter local rivals Independiente winning the Copa Sudamericana – are now desperately hoping they can keep hold of him over the summer break.
One thing clubs aren't so bothered about keeping hold of during the last few months has been managers. If certain bosses make the decisions expected of them in the coming weeks, 2011 will begin with only four of Argentina's twenty top flight clubs having kept hold of the manager they started the Apertura with. Vélez's Ricardo Gareca isn't expected to sign an extension to his current contract – which ends on the 31st December – and Gimnasia La Plata manager Pablo Morant is understood to want a return to managing the club's youth divisions. As such, only Estudiantes' Sabella, All Boys' José Romero, Olimpo's Omar De Felippe and Newell's Old Boys' Roberto Sensini will have kept their jobs for the full term.
Banfield's Julio César Falcioni is almost certain to move to Boca Juniors by the end of this week, whilst River Plate find themselves in an unusually high position. They ended the Apertura fourth, with interim manager J.J. López having won 13 points from a possible 18 since taking charge prior to the superclásico in the fourteenth round, and now seeming hopeful of staying in charge in the new year, subject to the whims of president Daniel Passarella. They are also, at last, clear of the relegation playoff spots in the dread Promedio table.
Even with Estudiantes' impressiveness in winning this title, it would still be a fool who'd try and make predictions for the 2011 Clausura already. As Argentina's league breaks up for the summer, everything's as up in the air as ever. But in the red-and-white half of La Plata, at least, it'll be a very happy Christmas.
As well as writing for IBWM, Sam is a regular contributor to Soccernet and When Saturday Comes, and also runs his outstanding Argentine football blog, Hasta El Gol Siempre. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.