Nick Dorrington


National team coach Diego Maradona’s decision to exclude Boca Juniors midfielders Juan Roman Riquelme and Sebastian Battaglia from his squad to face France next Wednesday has been a major news story in Argentina. The pair will get an extended rest following Boca’s Clausura opener against Gimansia de Jujuy on Sunday, while Estudiantes, Independiente and Velez Sarsfield will all see key players leave to join up with the squad following their respective fixtures.

Maradona has been keen to stress that his decision was not a sign of favouritism toward Boca, a club with which he holds a special bond, but was instead due to the AFA’s reluctance to reschedule Boca’s game to Saturday. His argument being that Riquelme and Battaglia would not have enough time to recover sufficiently before boarding the plane to Europe with the rest of the squad on Sunday night. 

While his excuse will just about wash for now, across town at Boca’s fierce rivals River Plate, new coach Nestor Gorosito would surely be more than happy to have a club versus country row ahead of his side’s Clausura kick-off against Colon de Santa Fe. As it is, he is quickly discovering that he has inherited a River side low on quality and confidence after a disastrous end to 2008.

Having tasted triumph in the Clausura tournament in the first half of the year, they suffered the ignominy of finishing bottom in the Apertura – a sudden and dramatic dip in form that saw highly-rated coach Diego Simeone resign from his post with six games left to play. 

It was the first time River had ever finished bottom of the table in their 108-year history, and although Gorosito will find it difficult to do worse in this year’s Clausura, he has a lot of work to do if he hopes to get Los Millonairos back into the upper echelons of Argentine football. 

Boca easily brushed River aside in their two encounters in the annual pre-season Torneo de Veranos. Carlos Ischia’s side won the first meeting 2-1, despite playing more than half the game with ten-men, before recording an almost embarrassingly comfortable 2-0 win in the second. River barely mustered a shot on target in either match, with Gorosito clearly struggling to right the deficiencies that were all too apparent in the Apertura. 

River’s distinct lack of defensive pace was cruelly exposed, time and time again, by Boca’s Pablo Mouche, while a midfield bereft of ideas or drive left very little for the forward line of Mauro Rosales and Radamel Falcao Garcia to feed on. Alexis Sanchez and Sebastian Abreu are yet to be sufficiently replaced, while Diego Buonanotte appears to be struggling with the pressure of filing Ariel Ortega’s boots as a creative figurehead. 

With his side lacking leaders it is unsurprising that Gorosito has targeted experience in his transfer dealings. River have secured a return to El Monumental for former fan-favourite Marcelo Gallardo, having failed in a similar bid for Ortega, and have also been heavily linked with Argentinos Juniors midfielder Juan Ignacio Mercier – a favourite of Gorosito from his time in La Paternal.  

With finances tight, Gorosito will look to 25 year-old striker Cristian Fabbiani, on loan from Romanian side CFR Cluj, to add some firepower to his attack. With Falcao struggling to live up to his early career promise and take advantage of his obvious ability, Gorosito will hope that Fabbiani will be the partner to get the best out of Colombian international. 

River lined up in variations of 4-4-2 in both of their pre-season clashes with Boca, and having played with two up front for the large majority of his time in charge of Argentinos Juniors, it seems that Gorosito is keen to put an end to the days of Simeone’s single front man. 

Simeone was often criticised for his overly complicated tactical approach, and although Gorosito has shown in the past that he is not afraid of a little improvisation, a standard 4-4-2 diamond looks likely for the Clausura kick-off. With a lack of international quality players, he may also have to exercise a little more pragmatism then one would expect for the coach of such a revered name in world football. 

Boca and San Lorenzo will be the favourites for Clausura glory having both kept hold of most of their star players, while Tigre, Lanus, Estudiantes, Newell’s Old Boys and Velez Sarsfield will also hope to find themselves in the hunt. Where River will come into the equation is open to debate, but unless Gorosito is able to work miracles with a largely average squad then a top eight finish seems like the best they can hope for. 

While last year’s Clausura brought with it the promise of a new era, the expectations at El Monumental are a lot lower this time around. Unless the next batch of academy graduates can make a significant impression over the course of the year, more disappointment seems like the most likely outcome for the River faithful in 2009.