They are streaks ahead in the Superliga title race and defeated their closest rivals last weekend in the dying minutes of the match. But somehow, the Xeneize are surrounded by discontent. How has it come to this?
Almost a month has passed since River Plate laid hands on the Supercopa, in the midst of frenzied media coverage and following a tense 90 minutes in Mendoza. But the match continues to make waves – and not in the champions’ Núñez home. Defeat to their bitter rivals has made a deep mark on Boca Juniors, a team that even with the Superliga trophy almost guaranteed cannot avoid the sensation of underachievement.
Sunday’s victory over Talleres should have been a joyful moment for the league leaders. Tied 1-1 with the pugnacious Córdoba side going into the final minutes at the Bombonera, midfielder Pablo Pérez came through with a fine finish to convert Carlos Tevez’s drilled cross and give victory to the home side. The triumph against Boca’s closest challengers handed Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s men a nine-point lead at the summit, a lead that – with just six games left of the season and barring some unforeseen catastrophe – means that the giants will repeat their Primera División triumph of 2016- 17 and take the title for a third time in the last four editions.
Yet not even that huge step toward glory could calm the waters. Upon turning home the goal Pérez turned not toward his jubilant team-mates but to the Bombonera stands, firing off a foul-mouthed tirade at fans who had apparently been barracking the new Argentina international throughout the match. One supporter in particular, decked in a yellow jacket, hit back when the home players trudged off the field in strangely muted fashion, hurling abuse at the champions-elect. That, however, was not the most sinister interaction Boca endured with supposed ‘fans’ during the week: just 24 hours before the Talleres clash members of the ‘La 12’ barra brava paid the squad a visit during training, making it clear that they are not happy.
“We know already that we are the local champions,” was the message from the violent element, according to witnesses, “but we want the Libertadores. You are playing in the biggest club in the world. Drop the bullshit and start playing like you should be playing.” While those same witnesses affirm the ‘summit’ was carried out in a ‘friendly’ manner, it is clear that not even league victory will suffice for either Boca or their ravenous barra this season.
Daniel Angelici therefore had a fraught week explaining away the latest mini-crisis to hit his club, after grabbing the headlines previously for a fierce dressing-down of the Boca squad post-Supercopa defeat. “It is something that is hardly surprising, but nevertheless we do not like it and we will not accept it happening in this manner,” the president said of La 12’s trip to Boca’s training. “Ten or twelve people cannot come along and enter as if it were their own house because that is not the case, and if they force their way in security should not be asking anything, they must report it.” Of Pérez he was similarly forthright: “I did not like his attitude, although he was correct in coming out quickly to apologise. A supporter might insult you, but those us in power know we have to keep our feelings inside, more so with the wonderful fans we have.”
When all is taken into consideration this rather overblown crisis boils down to three issues that torture Boca. First, the 11 long years that have passed since the club last lifted the Copa Libertadores; second, a succession of cup defeats to River that burn deep, and lastly, the undeniable fact that despite walking away with the Superliga the club is not playing the football expected of it, having repatriated the prodigal son Tevez and spent millions of dollars on a squad that should supposedly sweep the board of trophies this season. Tevez has also succumbed to the general malaise, and now only the Libertadores will finally lift the clouds from over the Bombonera.
Some relief was at hand on Wednesday, as Colombia’s Junior were downed 1-0 to give Boca their first Libertadores win of the year and, perhaps more importantly, precious oxygen to keep the wolves from the door. However, it was, again, far from a vintage showing, with Cristian Pavón proving the difference with a fine strike in the first half, while Ramón Ábila blazed a penalty over the bar late on. Nonetheless, the result sends the Xeneize to second in their group behind leaders Palmeiras and means, at the very least, that for a few days they will be judged on matters on the pitch rather than the circus show away from it.
To truly keep the pressure off, however, Barros Schelotto and Boca have just one option. The victories must continue to arrive, preferably in more emphatic fashion, and qualification for the knockout stages of the Copa, which will be played after the World Cup, is an absolute necessity. There is perhaps no greater sign of the immense pressure that circulates constantly in La Boca that even a week that contained two huge wins failed to remove the storm clouds from over La Bombonera. Many more will be required if that storm is not to turn into an irresistible deluge.