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SPORTS | 30-04-2021 02:18

Argentine sides off to good start in Copa Libertadores ties

A total of five Argentine sides currently occupy qualifying spots for the next round of the Copa Libertadores.

Barely a week goes by without one club or another plunging into profound and seemingly irrecuperable crisis, if not the entirety of Argentine football. Nobody thought to tell the nation's six participants in the Copa Libertadores, though, as with just one exception the first two rounds yielded overall positive results.

Boca Juniors in particular can barely reach the end of each day without reports of nuclear meltdown following them. But the Xeneize have started their latest attempt to regain the Copa on the right foot, recording two encouraging wins and gaining some measure of revenge in the process. First, The Strongest were dispatched in their dizzying La Paz fortress, not a result sea level-dwelling Argentine clubs enjoy on a regular basis. Indeed, not since 1971 had Boca managed a victory amid the altitude of the Bolivian capital, but they showed exemplary discipline in defending Sebastián Villa's early goal and clinched an historic three points.

Even better was to come this week. Santos had humiliated Miguel Ángel Russo's men in the 2020 semi-finals just three months ago, but in the Bombonera on Tuesday the Brazilians – admittedly a pale shadow of the side which had come so close to glory in January – found themselves soundly beaten by the organised Argentines, who enjoy maximum points so far in the competition.

While River Plate did not quite match that perfect start, there is also ample room for optimism around Núñez. A hard-fought 1-1 draw in Brazil away to Fluminense was followed by a 2-1 defeat of Junior in front of the empty Monumental stands, leaving the Millonario well-placed to continue their enviable Copa record under Marcelo Gallardo. “We were a practical team against a tough rival, with good technique and physically strong,” the coach signalled after the match. “We struck at just the right moments.”

On an individual level, perhaps no single player enjoyed as fruitful a week as one of the new faces in the Racing Club line-up. Juan Cáceres, 20, emerged almost from nowhere as La Academia's favoured right-back, and as well as showing encouraging signs at the back has also demonstrated a penchant for vital goals. It was Cáceres who popped up to save a point against Rentistas and the defender netted again to open the scoring against Cristal on Thursday, while also downing Colón with a last-minute effort in the middle. Even so the Avellaneda side made hard work of the limited Peruvians and were pulled back to 1-1, before Tomás Chancalay sealed three points with the hosts down to 10 men and ensured Juan Antonio Pizzi's men made a positive start to the Copa in terms of results, even if performances leave a lot to be desired.

A total of five Argentine sides currently occupy qualifying spots for the next round. As well as the aforementioned trio Argentinos Juniors have seemingly channelled the spirit of late idol Diego Maradona, winning both their games to sit top of Group F. Defensa y Justicia too have picked up where they left off at the end of 2020. The Copa Sudamericana champions held Independiente del Valle to an impressive draw in Quito and followed up by thrashing Universitario 3-0 in Florencio Varela, leaving them second in Group A behind Libertadores holders Palmeiras.

That leaves only Vélez Sarsfield with work to do in order to catch up. Paradoxically, the Liniers side have looked one of the brightest so far, but after coming out on the wrong side of a five-goal thriller against Flamengo having led twice they went down in spirited fashion at altitude to LDU Quito. Zero points after two games is a daunting statistic, but the quality is there for Mauricio Pellegrino and his players and next Tuesday's clash against fellow stragglers Unión La Calera is the perfect chance to finally get their campaign up and running and begin to challenge for a knockout berth. There are still four games to go, after all, and the path for all of Argentina's challengers is bound to contain a few more twists and turns before the qualifiers are ultimately determined.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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