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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-07-2023 17:31

New coach for Millonarios, but victory song remains the same

River Plate clinch the title at the first time of asking with new coach Martín Demichelis.

Argentine football fans are famed for being among the most superstitious anywhere in the planet. With that in mind, an article that could feasibly have been prepared and published months ago when the conclusion of the Liga Profesional already looked inevitable can finally see the light of day. River Plate have been crowned champions, with the only real surprise that it took even this long to come to fruition.

The Millonario led the chasing pack almost from the very start of the season, and their position appeared unassailable as early as mid-April as, while potential rivals such as Boca Juniors and Racing Club floundered, a run of eight consecutive wins took them clear. Still, a couple of late jitters meant it was not until Saturday that the Estadio Monumental could finally hail their heroes. A typically emphatic victory over typically underwhelming opposition, in this case Estudiantes, finally sealed victory over nearest rivals Talleres, who mounted a spirited yet ultimately doomed last-minute run to the frustration of a few more anxious fans within the Millo ranks.

Estudiantes had more than one eye on their Copa Sudamericana showdown midweek and put up little resistance in a 3-1 defeat in Núñez, with goals from Lucas Beltrán, Nico de la Cruz and Esequiel Barco doing all the necessary damage in the first half. This is Primera División title No. 38 for River, a national record, and a special day for rookie boss Martín Demichelis who clinched silverware at the first time of asking in his new job. “I had been controlling my emotions all day,” the ecstatic coach, decked in a River jersey, beamed to TNT Sports once the deed was done. “Then the team moved me with all they did in the first half. And then, close to the moment, everything goes to your head.

“It is very hard to explain those feelings, I'm grateful to life, this institution, to everybody.”

Comparisons to Demichelis' predecessor in the job are as unfair as they are inevitable. Much will be made, of course, of the fact that while Marcelo Gallardo took no fewer than seven years to lift his first and only Primera title at the club (admittedly compensating with some other big wins along the way), the ex-Bayern Munich and Argentina needed barely six months to clinch his own triumph. There are also parallels that can be made between the pair, who were both relative neophytes on the bench when their giant employers came calling.

As with El Muñeco, Demichelis has made a virtue of finding value in unexpected places, be it in youth or unheralded or under-rated players. While previously the likes of Lucas Alario, Rafa Borré and Juan Quintero came through to win River hearts, this year Lucas Beltrán has been the name on everybody's lips. By his own admission the striker had been close to leaving the club on another loan move at the start of 2023, having netted just five times in twenty-six games under Gallardo the previous year. But the young Córdoba native decided to tough it out and made the breakthrough, top scoring for River with eleven Liga strikes while expensive potential replacements such as Miguel Borja and Salomón Rondón fell short. “Some clubs had spoken to my agent,” he told reporters during the title celebrations. “I don't know if it was fate or whatever, but fortunately I stayed.”

Good fortune or otherwise, Beltrán, Demichelis and River will now be hoping that spell can take hold internationally. In contrast to their dominant league form the Copa Libertadores group stage proved a bumpy ride for the club, who had to wait to the final day of the competition to seal qualification to the last 16 behind leaders Fluminense. Having suffered a chastening 5-1 reverse against Flu another daunting Brazilian opponent now looms in August in the shape of Internacional, who curiously enough now boast their own ex-River favourite on the bench in the shape of Eduardo Coudet. It is on this stage more than any other that Demichelis' River tenure will be judged; but this brilliant league victory will give the coach plenty of credit in the bank and that most valuable of assets in Argentine football, time to shape the team in his own style and image – a luxury afforded only to winners like Gallardo, the very lucky few.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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