Thursday, April 18, 2024

SPORTS | 07-07-2022 01:03

Battaglia pays the price as harmless Boca crash out of Libertadores

Xeneize boss sacked by club, becoming the sixth subsequent coaching appointment to pay the price for failing to reclaim the Copa.

In a decisive knockout tie, one of the two teams involved decides to make the 90 minutes a non-spectacle. It sits back and absorbs everything the opponent can muster, failing to record even a single shot on target before prevailing through the lottery of penalties, living to fight another day.

If that strategy sounds familiar to Boca Juniors fans it is because the Xeneize themselves have employed it to great effect. Both in last year's Copa Argentina victory over River Plate and May's Copa de la Liga Profesional win against Racing Club they finished the game without troubling the rival goalkeeper and still ran out winners, going on to lift the trophy on each occasion for good measure. But on Tuesday, Sebastián Battaglia's side were handed a taste of their own medicine by painfully negative yet organised Corinthians, exiting the Copa Libertadores by way of a gripping 6-5 shootout reverse.

The result itself should be less troubling than the manner in which it came about. Boca were effectively handed control of the tie by the injury-ravaged Brazilians and invited to come at them and do their worst. Their worst, it turned out, was wholly harmless. The hosts were again left without any sort of attacking plan beyond giving the ball to Sebastián Villa on the left and hoping the Colombian could conjure up something to unlock the game. That gambit has worked well enough recently when he has been in sparkling form but when Villa fails to ignite, the whole team tends to go down with him, and so it proved on a drab misty evening at the Bombonera.

In Villa's effective absence Battaglia's chosen solution was crosses, and plenty of them. Forty-three, in fact, few of which threatened to make any impact upon the sturdy Corinthians backline. One of the scant exceptions led to an early penalty for the hosts which was drilled against the post by Darío Benedetto, the beginning of a torrid night for the star striker which went on to include a handful of decent missed chances and another spot-kick that would have won Boca the shoot-out but instead ended up in the second tier of the club's venerable old stadium. The Xeneize have invested millions in a squad that still looks unable to put together a coherent style of play, and while part of that blame must be shouldered by the coach – newly unemployed after receiving his marching orders in the middle of River's own Copa defeat at the hands of Vélez– it speaks of a lingering rot in the Boca administration which has been ignored for far too long.

By neat coincidence, 24 hours earlier on Monday Corinthians celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their last triumph in the Libertadores, which happened to come against a Boca team with Julio César Falcioni on the bench and an ageing, fading Juan Román Riquelme wearing the captain's armband. Since that fateful day presidents Daniel Angelici and now Jorge Amor Ameal, with Román at his side, have moved heaven and earth to bring the glory days back to La Boca – without success.

Falcioni left, unloved and unmourned by the Boca faithful, following the defeat, and Battaglia has now become the sixth subsequent coaching appointment to pay the price for failing to reclaim the Copa. They have been a mixed bunch: Carlos Bianchi, the returning veteran hero; illustrious ex-players Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and the most recent incumbent; an unheralded grafter with cup pedigree like Gustavo Alfaro; and the wildcard pick, Miguel Ángel Russo, whose best qualification for the job was his prior triumph with the Xeneize and the inspired Riquelme in 2007. Each enjoyed varying degrees of success, albeit overshadowed by Marcelo Gallardo's River juggernaut, and the titles at least domestically never dried up. But none of those men managed to imprint his own identity on a team, leading to a disjointed decade which cannot help but feel like a wasted opportunity given the vast resources that have been pumped into pursuing the Libertadores, the club's very own silver-plated white whale.

Boca are once more back to square one, then. The dance of names to replace Battaglia is already in full swing, with Peru boss Ricardo Gareca the current favourite. But until Boca stop thinking solely as far as the next Libertadores and consider what kind of football they actually want to play, any hopes of putting together a lasting, trophy-winning project will be frustrated, guaranteeing more anguished Libertadores evenings as the wait for Number Seven continues unabated.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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