Argentina’s most prestigious football match ended last Sunday in somewhat predictable circumstances. There was plenty of excitement to be sure, three excellent goals and a level of tension and borderline violence to be expected from any such clash, but ultimately there were few surprises as Boca Juniors took the plaudits as the latest winners of the Superclásico. In River Plate’s own backyard.
Boca are in their current situation for a reason. Flying high at the top of the Superliga table, seven points clear of the nearest challengers, Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s charges have been as near-perfect as humanly possible since the start of this season. The weekend’s 2-1 victory over the Millonario in a packed, colourful Monumental was hard-fought as expected, but it also marked eight consecutive victories for the visitors and a continuation of the form which has seen them negotiate more than a quarter of the current campaign without dropping even a single point.
The plain truth is that – even with stars like Sebastián Pérez and Fernando Gago out on long-term injuries – the Xeneize have an astronomic budget that has allowed them to construct a squad far superior to any of their rivals. As if to illustrate that point both goals on Sunday, a cracking free-kick from Edwin Cardona, seconds after Nacho Fernández saw red for trying to implant his studs deep into the Colombian’s chest, and Nahitán Nández’s well-taken volley, were scored by new acquisitions brought to the Bombonera among several others at the start of the season. When added to the likes of Pablo Pérez, Darío Benedetto and Cristian Pavón, the talent already at Barros Schelotto’s disposition from previous campaigns, and a lack of fatigue stemming from Boca’s absence from continental competition, it is unsurprising to seem them sweep away all-comers.
“Beating River is fantastic for everyone at Boca. We are leaders, with eight wins out of eight. It brings us great joy,” a jubilant Barros Schelotto said after the match. “The team showed great attitude, they never became desperate. “Winning the Superclásico again confirms everything, we have been doing so well.”
Taxing question. But if victory serves to reinforce Boca on their way to what seems already an inevitable defence of the Primera title lifted in 2015-16, defeat raises a taxing question over in Núñez. ‘Where do we go from here?’ must be the phrase on everybody’s lips around the Monumental after a disastrous week, that included being knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, ended with their arch-rivals celebrating in front of a dumbstruck home crowd.
Marcelo Gallardo’s work with the Millo over the last three trophy-laden years cannot be stained by one reverse. But the coach must now be wondering if he has the strength to rebuild his side yet again after another term in which he has seen some of his best players emigrate to more lucrative climes.
Sebastián Driussi’s exit to Zenit in Russia and the acrimonious departure of Lucas Alario to Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen left a gaping hole in his plans up front and – despite a welcome explosion of form from Nacho Scocco in recent weeks – it has been clear that River’s 2017 vintage was not quite good enough to challenge for major honours.
Frustration at that reality was perhaps what drove Gallardo to make comments after the match that were not worthy of a football figure of his standing; remarking in the heat of the press conference that “we lost the [Libertadores] semi-final because we played it, not like some who aren’t playing the Copa and have settled for the league.”
It was a spiteful, desperate dig, and easily brushed off by a Boca side that may have a lead so unassailable by Christmas they can afford to focus on the 2018 Libertadores without jeopardising their title hopes.
Gallardo may not be around to see that. If he decides over the summer, reasonably enough, that after three and a half years in one of Argentina’s most demanding football institutions he deserves a break from the relentless pressure, he will have no shortage of job offers from top European clubs to take the reins.
River, meanwhile, will have another chance to strengthen once the action restarts in 2018, bringing in much-needed attacking firepower and adding depth to a squad that, despite recent travails, is still one of the strongest in South America.
Perhaps they will be back for another tilt at the Libertadores. The league now looks a lost cause for them or for any other challenger. Boca’s superiority was confirmed once again, and the inaugural Superliga title even at this early stage is theirs to lose.