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SPORTS | 04-05-2023 15:14

Rookie bosses ready for unpredictable River-Boca Superclásico

Nine years and a month have passed since the last time River took to the field against Boca Juniors without Marcelo Gallardo leading them out. But ‘El Muñeco’ is gone now, leaving both sides in the unusual situation of having two rookie coaches centre-stage in Argentina's most celebrated club fixture.

The year was 2014. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had just begun her penultimate year in the Casa Rosada, which started on a low note when a run on the peso pushed Argentina's national currency up to the unthinkable sum of eight to the US dollar (or 13 ‘blue dollar’ pesos, if you prefer). The wider world was in turmoil, too, after Russia's aggressive armed swagger into the Crimea, and it was scant consolation for observers that the scourge of the Ice Bucket Challenge was still a few months away from ruining the Internet.

Juan Román Riquelme was still running the roost for Boca Juniors on the pitch instead of pensively sipping directors' box mates, and on the other side of the Superclásico divide, Ramón Díaz was getting River Plate back into shape after their disastrous year in the B Nacional – a catastrophe he made more than clear was not his doing when given the chance. The Boca team of the time included such luminaries as Hernán Grana, Agustín Orión and Claudio 'Chiqui' Pérez while the Millonario could count on would-be defensive superstar Eder Álvarez Balanta and the well-travelled Osmar Ferreyra. And on one side of the divide a single phrase was on everybody's lips: “It wasn't a corner.”

Nine years and a month have passed since the last time River took to the field against their arch-rivals without Marcelo Gallardo leading them out. On that occasion, Ramiro Funes Mori (remember him?) proved the hero with a towering late header from said disputed set-piece that handed River victory in the Bombonera, sending them on the way to victory in the 2014 Final tournament which signed off Díaz's third spell in charge with a flourish. The rest is history: Gallardo took over later that year and, in continental competition in particular, delighted in vanquishing an assortment of different Boca coaches at every possible opportunity. But ‘El Muñeco’ is gone now, leaving Martín Demichelis to take the reins; and Jorge Almirón's recent appointment leaves the unusual situation of two rookie coaches taking the field in Argentina's most celebrated club fixture on Sunday.

Had one asked a week ago which new boss was in the best shape going into the crunch match, the answer would have been straightforward. Demichelis oversaw an eight-match winning streak without conceding a goal that sent River rocketing up the Liga Profesional de Fútbol standings, and they enjoy a comfortable six-point cushion over San Lorenzo even after that run ended at the hands of Atlético Tucumán last Friday.

They may be faint, however, but a few alarm bells have been sounded. Fluminense ran riot midweek to thrash Demichelis' charges 5-1 in Río de Janeiro, leaving them bottom of their Copa Libertadores group at the halfway stage. Having conceded just six goals all season domestically, Franco Armani has seen 10 fly past him in three continental matches alone, raising questions about River' s resolve when faced with top-class opposition. The coach's subsequent contention that River “fought as equals against the best team in Brazil” after such a beating did not exactly help matters either, and all eyes will be on the home bench at the Monumental to see if his cavalier tactical attitude backfires again.

All the more troubling for River, then, that their arch-rivals are on the up. Boca still are not lighting up stadiums under Almirón but they at least look like a competent football team, dispatching Racing Club with ease last weekend before doing the same to Colo Colo on Wednesday to plant one foot firmly in the Libertadores knockout phase. The introduction of young talents like Nicolás Valentini and Valentín Barco has helped, as has the decision to push Luis Advincula up the pitch and transforming at a stroke a defensive liability at right-back into a menace who has run Boca's last two opponents ragged, finally injecting some urgency into what has been a soporific side to watch for much of the last year.

There is little reason to think either man will change course for Sunday's match. River will look to dominate possession and wear Boca down with relentless pressure, while the visitors wait for the chance to counter at speed and exploit those newly exposed leaks in the Millo backline. In other words, not far off what we came to expect from Superclásicos of the Gallardo era; but no easier to predict because of that fact.

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Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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