Of all the manners Boca Juniors supporters may have imagined running out champions at the start of the Liga Profesional de Fútbol season, the scenario they found themselves in on Sunday must have appeared the most unlikely. There they were, a step away from regaining the title from River Plate after a stunning final march to the top of the title – and hoping for a favour from their bitter rivals in order to lift the crown.
A thrilling final day did indeed see the Xeneize beat out Racing Club, with more than a little help from their nemesis along the way. Ultimately, after 26 fixtures and no few twists and turns, the championship hinged on five hectic minutes in which everything was on the line.
It appeared that Boca had done just enough to see off their challengers as their clash with Independiente in La Bombonera and La Academia's meeting against River just down the road in Avellaneda were coming to a close. Hugo Ibarra's men had fallen behind early to the visitors only to roar back with goals from Pol Fernández and Sebastián Villa to take the all-important lead which would guarantee their triumph no matter what occurred elsewhere.
Then, all too suddenly, things took an unpleasant turn for the Xeneize. With nine minutes left on the clock teenage substitute Jesús Vallejo netted a memorable second goal in Independiente colours to tie things up at 2-2. Almost simultaneously, the packed stands at El Cilindro were reaching fever pitch. Having seen Matías Rojas' penalty cancelled out by Miguel Borja Racing were awarded a second kick within seconds of their own rivals' equaliser.
There was one problem, though: designated taker Rojas had already left the action, seemingly leaving the title hopefuls without a back-up option. To the surprise of just about everyone watching it was substitute centre-back Jonathan Galván who picked up the ball with the hope of becoming an instant cult hero at La Academia. Franco Armani had other ideas, saving a weak effort before the rebound was blastly harmlessly wide. The home crowd was crushed at seeing the title slip away in the blink of an eye, barely registering Borja's last-gasp winner to seal their fate in front of a stadium stunned into a deathly quiet.
Anguish for Fernando Gago and Racing, jubilation for nervous Boca; and a ringing vindication for both River and Independiente, who banished all of the poisonous talk of laying down and handing the games over with two intensely spirited performances.
Outgoing River boss Marcelo Gallardo probably did not imagine that his final game in charge would crown Boca champions, but it was a fine way to go out for one of Argentine's most successful club coaches in history.
“In a country where everything is under suspicion, where everything is twisted and petty, it can seem there are no values remaining,” he signalled after the game. “Through football we sometimes have the chance to sow seeds that mean no matter what happens elsewhere you can have respect and dignity in this profession, in football and in the passion which this sport causes in us.”
For Boca, meanwhile, this latest victory caps another remarkable year in which, despite being far from their best and once again changing coaches midway through the term, the club's knack for winning pulled them through. The Xeneize swept the Copa de la Liga and Liga competitions and now boast eight trophies in the last seven years, five of which have been added since Juan Román Riquelme took over as vice-president and football supremo in December 2019. Only a nail-biting shootout defeat to Patronato on Wednesday, with the team perhaps slightly groggy still following their post-title celebrations, deprived them of the chance to meet Talleres in this weekend's Copa Argentina final and go for a clean sweep of domestic silverware.
Taciturn and closed-off as ever in the public eye, Riquelme's methods have been scrutinised and questioned more than any other director in his three years on the job. But success is the best measure, and the overall impression left by this roller-coaster 2022 will be overwhelmingly positive for Boca after their dogged young team took the lap of honour in the most dramatic of circumstances.