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Superclásico proves race for Primera crown will go down to the wire

Boca Juniors fans sit in the stands despondent, after their team’s 3-1 defeat in last weekend’s Superclásico against River Plate.
By Dan Edwards
For the Herald

River’s heroics in the Bombonera cast shadow over Barros Schelotto’s Boca as Gallardo proves his worth once again

Six months is a long time in soccer and the sports offers plenty of opportunity for change. Back in December, Boca Juniors was all but celebrating the title when Carlos Tevez’s heroics secured the club an emphatic 4-2 victory away to Superclásico rivals River Plate, a result that confirmed the club’s current status as the country’s strongest.

River has not stood still, however. The Millonario turned the tables on their arch-enemies by taming the Bombonera in a 3-1 win, a victory that throws the title race wide open and piles pressure on the under-performing Primera División leaders.

On paper, last Sunday’s game should have been a typically tense affair. Boca is top for a reason, having lost only twice in the entire season before this round, while River were always going to be dangerous going into the Superclásico on the back of a spectacular run of form in 2017 that included six wins and two draws. The match was ultimately decided by the two coaches: Marcelo Gallardo got his tactics just right in the most hostile of arenas, while adversary Guillermo Barros Schelotto erred in all the big calls. He cut a forlorn figure by the time the final whistle was heard.

The Boca legend is now being questioned like never before at the Xeneize helm. His insistence on playing Gino Peruzzi, who was made available due to the loophole which allows suspended players to enter in place of others on international duty, backfired as the right-back was torn apart by the much-maligned Gonzalo Martínez. Boca’s midfield trio of Fernando Gago, Rodrigo Bentancur and Pablo Pérez was a shambles, incoherent and awkward throughout, with Gago left marooned in the centre of the pitch and a clear target for River’s dynamic markers. He may have scored a rather fortuitous free-kick, but the playmaker’s isolation was demonstrated when he was run down in the final minutes by an immense Leo Ponzio in the move that allowed Sebastián Driussi to kill off the match.

It is true that Barros Schelotto endured rotten luck in the opening minutes, when the always dangerous Ricardo Centurión was forced off through injury. But the coach compounded the misfortune with an inexplicable change, throwing on an extra forward in Walter Bou when Boca needed creativity and penetration further back down the pitch. It left the hosts toothless and whatever danger it did create was invariably mopped up by Lucas Martínez Quarta, River’s exceptional young centre-back who came of age in the bearpit of the Bombonera. In total the Millo fielded four graduates from its famed youth system, and each youngster came through the test with distinction. Even Augusto Batalla, badly at fault in goal for Gago’s strike, showed incredible resolve to put that error behind him and make a tremendous double save late on that kept River ahead when it most counted.

No cause for panic

Boca still have no reason to panic though. A similarly disastrous home defeat for closest challengers Newell’s Old Boys ahead of kick-off gave the Xeneize breathing space at the top regardless of how the Superclásico turned out. The title remains in its hands, even if River can pull within one point of the summit if it wins the game previously suspended against Atlético Tucumán.

But looking at Barros Schelotto as he faced up to reporters after the game, it was clear that such a comprehensive loss has taken its toll.

“We were playing the Clásico but we were always going to stay top,” he said, attempting gamely to play down the importance of Sunday’s result. “The defeat hurts, there are no excuses, but we still have six matches to play and become champions, it is all down to us and we have to give our best.”

River, meanwhile, is now free to focus exclusively on the title chase having sealed qualification to the Copa Libertadores knockout stages days before the Superclásico. Gallardo’s men will continue to play as they have done throughout 2017: offensively, passing the ball across the field, pressing incessantly and, perhaps most important, apparently without the weight of pressure that usually goes hand-in-hand with the fight for a major trophy. The coach himself is key in maintaining that relaxed atmosphere, and will not let this victory turn River into Primera front-runners.

“This gives us immense joy and we will enjoy it incredibly, but winning the clásico has not given us any titles,” he warned after the match.

For the last three years Gallardo has proved himself a coach of the very highest quality, rebuilding his River team multiple times while never losing the rhythm and verve that has made it such a powerful force. Working with a fraction of the budget available to Barros Schelotto and Boca, he has every right to enjoy this latest victory that, while far from being a title decider, sent a potent message to the flailing Xeneize that the Primera race will go down to the wire.

 

@danedwardsgoal

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