January 16, 2018
Friday, May 12, 2017

Pressure grows on once-impregnable Boca as Superclásico clash arrives

River Plate forward Rodrigo Mora clashes with Boca Juniors’ midfielder Pablo Perez, duing last December’s Superclásico at the Monumental.
By Dan Edwards
For the Herald

Xeneize’s resurgent rivals River Plate are in top form and will fancy themselves in clash against the league leaders

Just a few short weeks ago Boca Juniors’ position at the top of the Primera División standings appeared impregnable.

Even if a handful of teams were still dreaming of overtaking the Xeneize, River Plate was certainly not one of them. The Copa Libertadores was to all extents and purposes the route to glory for Marcelo Gallardo’s men, who were far behind their arch-rivals when 2017’s league matches finally kicked off. But the scenario has changed profoundly. From league also-rans, the Millonarios are now serious contenders to topple Boca after leading the Primera from almost the very first day of the season.

Should River topple Boca this Sunday at the Bombonera and take the honours in the year’s first official Superclásico, the team will be just four points behind the leaders having played one game less. No wonder that within the Boca camp the derby is causing nerves to be frayed, as its fine campaign threatens to go off the rails in the final stages.

The past weekend in truth could have been even worse for the Xeneize. Nelson Vivas’ ridiculous Full Monty-style act after being sent off from the Estudiantes bench and the repeated hits suffered by the returning Ricardo Centurión were the big headlines from the clubs’ 0-0 draw in La Plata, but it was another game where the lack of fluency in Boca’s play — despite fielding its two creative talents in Ricky and Fernando Gago — was more than evident. It was the third draw in four games for the side coached by Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a run that has seen its hefty lead diminish significantly.

Indeed, were it not for Newell’s Old Boys’ meltdown at home to Independiente, in which they lost 4-2, the Rosario team could be as close as one point off the pace-setters. Within Boca, however, all eyes are on its resurgent rival.

“We will keep going with a low profile. If people say River plays better than Boca, we should not be confused. We were out of it,” Gallardo signalled to reporters after cutting the gap to seven with a 2-1 win against Temperley.

The coach had the luxury of resting several players midweek in the Libertadores to make sure they reach the Superclásico in the best shape possible, one of the advantages of starting the international competition in superb form.

With six wins and a draw in its last seven outings, it is clear that even in the Bombonera River will smell blood and go all out for a famous victory.

Decidedly edge

The mood in La Boca, meanwhile, is decidedly edgy. Barros Schelotto turned the attention away from his own team’s failings and onto last Saturday’s referee, Silvio Trucco, for failing to award a spot-kick to striker Darío Benedetto.

“In two weeks we will have gone a year without receiving a single penalty. After that they will all come together, for sure,” he said, a joke that masked real frustration at the problems his star-studded squad has suffered in hitting the net in recent weeks. “To win the Clásico we have to run hard, keep the ball and play well. The Clásico is massive for all of us. We go into it as leaders, and in good shape. It will be important to win to stay top. You have to go in with cold blood.”

The coach is understandably reluctant to talk about his own future right now.

“Let’s win the Clásico, then we’ll talk about my renewal,” he said when the subject of a new Boca contract arose in La Plata.

But it is no secret that if he fails to deliver a league title in 2017 — after leading the race so comfortably — staying on at the Bombonera will become extremely difficult.

Gallardo on the other hand is acting with the inner peace that only three years of trophies and sustained success can bring, and with the knowledge that his wonderful spell at River is nearing its end on his own terms. A win over Boca at the Bombonera and a belated title challenge would only be a bonus for the coach as he chases the big prize of a second Libertadores with a Millo team that is improving with every game that passes.

Every Superclásico, be it a title decider or a grudge match between two teams playing merely for pride, brings Argentina to a standstill. It is the match everyone wants to win, and where a loss rankles deeply among players and fans alike.

Sunday’s clash, however, takes on an extra dimension. Boca can still go on to lift the Primera División, even with a home defeat, but the task will be made far more difficult if River continues to remain in the hunt with three more points, which would puts them right on the leader’s shoulder as we enter the decisive last few games of the season.



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