A tale of two clubs in one city as both Independiente and Racing Club hit superb form in hunt to bring down Boca in La Primera
The blue and red halves of Avellaneda were left feeling thoroughly deflated after disappointing 2016’s but changes of management have sparked upturns in form for both Racing Club and Independiente and the two Grandes are now starting to dream big again.
Three straight defeats at the end of the year signaled the end for Ricardo Zielinski at Racing after it had begun to look like the job was a little too big for the typically cautious, ‘small’ club coach and ushered back in at the Cilindro was Diego Cocca, who had only left the club at the end of 2015 but crucially was the man that brought the title to Avellaneda a year earlier.
That title-winning side was spearheaded by the experience and excellence of Champions League winner Diego Milito but Gustavo Bou proved a worthy foil and since El Principe has retired, it is El Pantera, who Racing now look to for inspiration.
Defensively Cocca still has a lot to do but going forward it is as if the handbrake has been taken off and Saturday’s thrilling 4-3 win over Atletico Tucuman exemplified this. Five straight wins for Racing and fifteen goals scored, close to 40% of their season tally, have put La Academia right back in the title mix and supporters have been quick to point out that the six-point deficit they currently trail by is less than that of the 2014 title winning season.
Whether Racing can do it with the current rate at which they are conceding goals remains to be seen but Cocca gets the absolute best from Bou, has found a more than able partner in Argentina under-20 international Lautaro Martinez and has Lisandro Lopez coming back from injury so there is reason for optimism.
Fierce rivals Independiente are also looking up and while the three home matches under Ariel Holan have ended in frustrating draws, El Rojo have won every one of their three away games to maintain an unbeaten record and post the best visiting team record in the top-flight.
Under Gabi Milito, Independiente were purveyors of pretty aimless possession football and regularly struggled to break sides down resulting in one of the lowest scoring attacks in the Primera and while Holan still needs to address this issue at the Estadio Libertadores de America, the new manager’s dynamic side are having no trouble on the road.
Captain Nicolas Tagliafico is superbly marshalling a young defensive unit, yet to concede away, and the pace of Emiliano Rigoni and Ezequiel Barco is providing a real outlet for the offence. Sunday’s deserved victory over Arsenal in Sarandi was the first time in ten years that El Rojo have won four consecutive away matches (split over the 2007 Aperture and Clausura) and the first time in the same tournament since Americo Gallego led Independiente to their last Primera title in 2002.
El Rojo have likely left themselves too much to do in order to get back in the race but Racing are sensing a repeat of 2014.
Boca falter amid injuries
Racing’s renewed belief has been bolstered by Boca Juniors’ dip in form and following last weekend’s draw with Patronato in La Bombonera, the league leaders were once again held to just a point, this time by Nacional B bound, Atletico de Rafaela.
Despite winning four of the seven matches since the restart, Boca have arguably never looked quite the same as they did when Carlos Tevez was pulling the strings last year but any problems have only been exacerbated by injuries to Fernando Gago, Sebastian Perez and crucially, the man who had been filling the void left by Carlitos, Ricardo Centurion.
Devoid of ideas Boca were unable to end their 13-year wait for a win in Rafaela but more importantly have seen their lead at the top cut to three points.
Newell’s Old Boys closed in after an impressive 3-0 win away to Aldosivi and while Diego Osella’s side have been regularly praised for their defensive resolve, Saturday’s performance was equally one of incisive passing and creativity.
Three points further back alongside Racing are two more sides that missed the golden opportunity to close on Boca – River Plate, who dropped two points at home against Sarmiento – and Estudiantes, who allowed Huracan to leave La Plata with a point.
San Lorenzo fell even further off the pace with defeat to Temperley and the result leaves Diego Aguirre clinging to his job by a thread. Midweek defeat in the Copa Libertadores could be the end for the Uruguayan as Los Cuervos see chances of lifting either trophy slip away.
Finally, the surprise contender to have emerged in the title race celebrated a club record sixth-straight win on Monday evening against Tigre and perhaps now Colon need to be taken seriously.
One of the best defences in the top flight, El Sabalero conceded a first goal in six games against Tigre but still managed to win despite playing with ten men since the first half. German Conti and Guillermo Ortiz in front of goalkeeper Jorge Broun ensure little gets through and Eduardo Dominguez’s January capture of Diego Vera has added a vital goal threat to nick their fair share of one-nil wins.
Boca remain favourites for now but the race is hotting up with nine fixtures remaining.