It took the best part of the year, but third time finally proved to be the charm for Fernando Gago and Racing Club.
The ex-Boca Juniors and Real Madrid midfield ace had exceeded all expectations upon taking over a seemingly moribund Academia side at the tail-end of 2021, turning an uninspired, pedestrian team into one of the Liga Profesional de Fútbol’s most dynamic outfits. But one doubt still hung over the relatively novice coach's head: the ability to come through when it really counted.
Gago had already seen Racing's hopes of Copa Liga Profesional glory explode amid shoot-out anguish against Boca Juniors back in May and was also forced to put a brave face on inexplicable defeats to inferior opposition which extinguished their interest in both the Copas Sudamericana and Argentina. But worse was yet to come: the October debacle in front of a packed, disbelieving Cilindro which condemned the Avellaneda club to defeat to River Plate and squandered the chance to unseat Boca at the top of the table in a thrilling conclusion to the league season.
Racing may have been forgiven for dedicating the rest of the year to licking their own wounds; but instead they came out snarling and bent on revenge. The ever-curious Argentine trophy calendar gave them the perfect opportunity: a shot at the Trofeo de Campeones, a sort of mutated super cup competition played between the winners of the Copa de Liga (in itself a uniquely local invention) and the league itself. And since Boca held both those trophies, the runners-up of each competition were handed another chance to collect silverware in a play-off before the main event itself in San Luis.
Far from feeling sorry for themselves, Gago's men created the most unlikely of epics. Both Tigre and then Boca themselves were dispatched coming from behind in the depths of extra time, the latter going out in an incredible blaze of angry self-destruction. No fewer than 11 red cards were shown by referee Facundo Tello, seven of which were directed at Xeneize players and seven pulled out in the aftermath of Carlos Alcaraz's celebrations after steering what proved to be the winning header past Agustín Rossi. That was the cue for an all-out brawl on the field and the frenzy of expulsions, and Boca officially lost by walkover when VAR showed Darío Benedetto suggesting the match official was on the take – quite possibly the technology's first use in such a situation – and the striker joined the exodus, leaving his side with just six men on the field.
As the joke goes… default, the two sweetest words in the English language, in the opinion of that greatest of contemporary philosophers, Homer Simpson. The early conclusion to hostilities certainly did not put a damper on Racing's celebrations as they greeted with delight their impressive-looking new trophy. Pure relief surely played a big part in festivities. Having come so close on so many occasions the spotlight was on La Academia and Gago in particular to come through, and another defeat would have put huge pressure on the coach's future at the club even after a fine season. As it was he finished 2022 a champion, and only briefly was his grin interrupted when the squad descended on him to ruff up his always immaculately coiffured hair.
Those chaotic scenes in San Luis are not quite the last action of this shortened year either. One more team is still waiting to join the elite ranks of the Liga Profesional, with that final place to be decided on the very eve of the World Cup next Sunday. On one side Instituto are desperate to join their Córdoba rivals Talleres and Belgrano in the big time and, after several near-misses, reach the top flight for the first time since 2006; on the other, Estudiantes, who have been away even longer. One must travel back in time all the way to when Argentina hosted and won the World Cup in 1978 to find Caseros' finest's last season in Primera – a sign, perhaps, of an auspicious campaign to come in Qatar if the Cervecero can battle through?