As the Northern hemisphere bids a final farewell to the dying embers of summer, Argentina welcomes the onset of Spring and a finely balanced league table. Sam Kelly reports from Buenos Aires.
Spring is in the air in Buenos Aires; it might not officially begin for another few days, but it's been warming up nicely in the last few weeks. For those of us who've grown up in chillier climes it is, anyway – most Argentines seem to dress for the time of year rather than the actual conditions, and thus the fact it's still officially winter means people are still walking the streets wrapped up in thick coats and scarves even though temperatures in the last few days have risen above 20 degrees celcius.
Things are also heating up in the nascent league table (see what I did there?), with three clubs now tied on points at the top. Estudiantes, Vélez Sarsfield and River Plate all have thirteen points with San Lorenzo and Arsenal only one behind them. Estudiantes – whose city derby with Gimnasia was meant to be played in the fourth round of matches but has been delayed until the 29th of this month – have a game in hand over everyone else (except Gimnasia, of course).
Vélez, who've been the press's team so far, beat River Plate a week and a half ago of course, but slipped up in only drawing against San Lorenzo on Saturday in a dull match which, in the words Olé normally use to describe such games, featured more desire than football. As such, a win for River over Arsenal allowed them to draw level, and also – following Boca Juniors' win over Olimpo last thing on Sunday – to climb out of the relegation zone, where as we discussed last week they found themselves in spite of their title challenge.
Much of the media here, as mentioned above, has been fawning over Vélez so far as the most dangerous-looking team of the championship. That's not without reason, but it undeservedly overlooks the other team joining River and the Liniers outfit at the top; Estudiantes de La Plata. This might be partly because Estudiantes lost narrowly in the Recopa Sudamericana (the South American supercup which, in true CONMEBOL style, is played between the winners of the most recent Copa Sudamericana and the most recent but one Copa Libertadores) to Liga de Quito, but it's a little unfair.
Estudiantes haven't hit the kind of gear everyone knows they're capable of – losing Mauro Boselli to Wigan Athletic might have something to do with that – but they've conceded only one goal so far in their five league matches, and that was away to ever-difficult opponents Godoy Cruz, of Mendoza. The trip to Ecuador for the first leg of the Recopa might have upset their season somewhat (it was the reason the city derby wasn't played on its original date) but they've stayed solid in spite of some fairly ordinary performances so far, with the exception of the Godoy Cruz match in which he ran the show, from captain and future club president Seba Verón.
Of course, Estudiantes aren't from Buenos Aires but from La Plata, sixty miles down the road, and with so much of the country's media based in the capital, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why Vélez, who do hail from one of the barrios of Buenos Aires, are the ones being lauded so far. Santiago Silva, the Uruguayan who helped fire Banfield to Torneo Apertura glory (their first title since 1899) last year, is joint top scorer but having just gone out of the Copa Sudamericana on Wednesday night to his old team, it'll be interesting to see how Vélez respond when they visit Arsenal this weekend.
Amazingly after five matches, four teams are still yet to win: Independiente, Quilmes, Gimnasia and champions Argentinos Juniors, who lost a lot of their squad and their manager over the winter break. Only the woeful Gimnasia have the distinction of still not having even scored a goal, but a bad result for Argentinos on Saturday away to Quilmes could very well see Pedro Troglio, the man brought in to manage the champions after Claudio Borghi was poached by Boca, become the first manager of the season to lose his job.
Borghi is arguably only still in a job himself because Boca have pulled two wins out of the bag at vital points in the season. In the fourth round, with their backs to the wall and Borghi having said he'd walk if they didn't win (a statement he retracted the day before the game), they beat Vélez with their best performance of the season so far – admittedly, that's rather damning it with faint praise. The weekend just gone, with Borghi again coming under pressure having lost at home to San Lorenzo in the fifth round, they travelled to Bahía Blanca and beat newly-promoted Olimpo 3-1, with Lucas Viatri and Martín Palermo (or 'slow and slower', as one American Boca fan living in Buenos Aires refers to them when I see him for a coffee) both scoring to prove they can play together.
Boca have had to make do without Juan Román Riquelme thus far, and he's still not expected back for a while, but he has finally started training with the ball again this week, and is hoping to be back in optimum condition in time for the superclásico against River Plate at the Monumental in early November.
River's midweek player news has been less delightful. It was announced on Tuesday that the public prosecutor in Teodelina, Diego Buonanotte's hometown in Santa Fe province, plans to put him on trial for manslaughter for having been at the wheel when his father's car went off the road in the early hours of the 26th December last year, killing Buonanotte's three best friends who were his pasengers. That's got to be distracting him from his football.
With the championship a third of the way in already, and only three points separating first from seventh, it's shaping into yet another nail-biting title race. Looks like it's going to be a long, hot... um... spring.
Sam also writes for Soccernet and When Saturday Comes, and you can follow all the day-to-day action at his blog Hasta El Gol Siempre during the Argentine season.