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SPORTS | 07-01-2022 22:51

Covid again set for starring role as new season draws closer

While beachgoers line up in their droves to get tested and take out their sweaty frustrations on medical personnel, though, footballers are conspicuous by their absence.

With the coming of January arrives yet another Argentine pre-season, as clubs resume training under the blazing heat of the summer sun, while the rest of the country tries to pack into a few square metres of Mar del Plata beachfront. The 2022 campaign starts under a shadow, however, with coronavirus causing no little uncertainty to warm-up plans and possibly even the season itself.

If that opening paragraph sounds overly familiar, it might well be because it was used with almost identical phrasing in the corresponding column at the start of 2021. The sense of déjà vu is rather overwhelming, with the 'shitty virus' (courtesy of current carrier Lionel Messi) continuing to cause upheaval wherever it flies. The pessimism of last January over whether vaccines would ever land in this corner of the globe has been replaced by a new pessimism concerning how well they stop infection, thanks in large part to Messrs Delta and Omicron, two words which jumped straight off the scripts of discarded Power Rangers spin-offs and into our lungs with depressing regularity, and contributing to the record 100,000 cases Argentina packed into just 24 hours on Thursday.

While beachgoers line up in their droves to get tested and take out their sweaty frustrations on medical personnel, though, footballers are conspicuous by their absence. This year, in a controversial break with tradition, the classic Torneo de Verano has given Mar del Plata a wide berth, with Boca Juniors, San Lorenzo, Talleres, Independiente and Chilean duo Colo Colo and Universidad Católica instead opting for La Plata’s Estadio Único, a late alternate when San Juan pulled out due to concerns over Covid.

The rather unwieldy six-team extravaganza gets underway next Friday and will be a useful proving ground for the Argentine contingent, three of which line up with different coaches to those who saw out the final matches of 2021.

Reigning Liga Profesional champions River Plate, meanwhile, are decamping to the picturesque Neuquén resort of San Martín de los Andes for their pre-season; but there has already been plenty of activity around the Estadio Monumental. The biggest news is the return of exquisite Colombian playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero following his stint in China, which if nothing else guarantees us at least a handful of truly stunning goals over the year to come. Defensive duo Emanuel Mammana and Leonardo Gónzalez Pírez are also expected to join Marcelo Gallardo's formidable-looking squad while ex-Boca youngster Tomás Pochettino, who impressed at Defensa y Justicia Talleres and in MLS rather more than at the Bombonera, is already confirmed as a new Millonario.

Boca, of course, also rate highly in the summer transfer rumour mill, and hope to seal their own blockbuster comeback story in the shape of Marseille striker Darío Benedetto, while elsewhere the club has been linked with players as varied as ex-Independiente man Nico Figal, Paraguay star Ángel Romero and even, once more, Edinson Cavani. And just down the road in Avellaneda, Fernando Gago is looking to make his Xeneize contacts pay off with approaches for Edwin Cardona and Ramón’Wanchope’ Ábila on behalf of Racing Club; in the red half of the city, Independiente, still yet to carry out presidential elections scheduled for December but with a new coach, ex-Colón man Eduardo Domínguez, are fighting tooth and nail to keep goalkeeper Sebastián Sosa, so crucial to the team's fortunes over the past two seasons.

As mentioned above, though, Covid is again determined to play a starring role this year. The return to pre-season yielded, as well as the grounded Messi (perhaps not too unhappy with this extended holiday break), almost 80 confirmed positives among the Liga Profesional’s 28 participants, with Racing, Independiente, Boca and Vélez Sarsfield – with no less than 16 cases – among the hardest hit. The virus has destroyed fixture schedules across Europe this past month and looks likely to pose a similar challenge when the Liga kicks off at the start of February. Some big decisions will have to be made over January, then, not least over whether to keep stands open or return games behind closed doors: meaning a nervous wait for fans everywhere alongside the excitement (or otherwise) of seeing their teams come together before the real action kicks off.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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