As the temperature and humidity soars over the Christmas period in Argentina, the country’s football takes a much needed break, but while the Primera División is usually crowning a champion of one of its short championships, this year it is just the halfway mark of a year-long tournament.
Ignoring the preposterous 30 teams in the top flight for a moment, falling in line with the European football calendar and not having two championships a year was one of the AFA’s few good ideas. So, just a fraction under halfway, how is the title race looking, who looks destined for the drop, who has shone and who has flopped?
Boca Juniors will restart the season in 2017 on top after recovering from their slow start to gradually gather momentum and reel in the teams ahead of them. Guillermo Barros Schelotto had found himself under considerable pressure following all the doors to possible cup triumphs slamming shut but a memorable superclásico win in the Monumental and an unbeaten run that stretches back to the opening weekend have Los Xeneizes out in front.
Estudiantes had appeared unstoppable but after suffering their first defeat in round eleven El Pincha then suffered three defeats in the last four and lost their grip at the top. Nelson Vivas’ side should still provide a challenge but now find themselves a point behind Newell’s Old Boys and San Lorenzo in second.
Every side in the bottom ten of the descenso table, with the exception of Quilmes, has changed managers (or will have changed by the time the season restarts) at least once in an attempt to change their fortune but the relegation picture still looks very murky. Atlético de Rafaela and Temperley are looking increasingly doomed but with four teams to drop into the Nacional B in an attempt to gradually reduce numbers in the top flight, the remaining two spots are anyones.
Jorge Burruchaga was appointed Sarmiento boss with five matches to go before the break and oversaw three wins to breathe new life into El Verde’s survival hopes while Olimpo can only hope that their form in Bahía Blanca is enough to keep them up. It took Arsenal until the final week of the season to record their first win and Humbertito Grondona is taking over in Sarandí so they could be in trouble. Huracán, Quilmes and Vélez all still nervously watch the teams around them each weekend.
Team of the season (so far)
Given Boca Juniors sit in the number one slot and have gone unbeaten for 13 matches, Barros Schelotto’s boys would be an obvious candidate but given the vast resources available another other than a serious title challenge would be an utter failure. Newell’s Old Boys being in second, just three points behind Boca, after a Torneo Transición in which they won just three times, is far more impressive and Diego Osella deserves enormous credit for that.
However, La Lepra are not the only side to have punched above their weight. Julio César Falcioni is channeling the spirit of his title winning Banfield side from 2009 and aside from ending Estudiantes’ unbeaten streak, El Taladro won five consecutive matches to wrap up the year.
Player of the season (so far)
Racing Club’s Marcos Acuña started the season in sensational form and earned himself a call-up to Edgardo Bauza’s Argentina squad while Carlos Tevez ended the year on a high with a memorable match-winning superclásico performance but for consistency over the past few months, there have been none better than Fernando Belluschi. The 33-year-old picked up the 2016 Olimpia award for the best player in Argentina last week and has rightly been on Argentina’s radar since signing for San Lorenzo in January. Four goals and three assists so far this campaign, Belluschi’s suspension in the Copa Sudamericana semi final against Chapecoense was a bitter blow for Diego Aguirre.
Signing of the season (so far)
Talleres invested heavily for their first season back in the top flight and have reaped the rewards with a hugely positive first four months thanks in part to the likes of Leonardo Gil and Sebastián Palacios. However, one addition to the Primera has stood out after some initial difficulties and that is Boca Juniors’ Darío Benedetto.
The 26-year-old contributed $1 million of his own money to complete the deal in June but had some supporters question if he was the correct signing when Boca crashed out of the Copa Libertadores. After a slow start, Benedetto eventually found his groove and as has always been the case in his career, once Pipa finds confidence, goals follow. Seven league goals (some of which have been absolute crackers) in only eight starts have helped fire Boca to the top of the table and already given Daniel Angelici the opportunity to double his money with offers from the MLS.
Young player of the season (so far)
Another crucial part in Boca Juniors recent success has been Cristian Pavón and it is little surprise to see Paris Saint-Germain linked with a move for the 20-year-old but it is impossible to ignore Sebastián Driussi’s contribution to River Plate this season. Only weeks before this most recent campaign, Druissi was being linked with a loan move away from the Monumental having failed to establish himself firmly in Marcelo Gallardo’s starting eleven. However, a few months on and the 20-year-old has transformed himself into the most feared striker in the top flight. Ten goals in thirteen matches puts the youngster at the top of the scoring charts and represents 48% 0f River’s total haul.
Breakthrough player of the season (so far)
Banfield’s positive season has largely centred around veteran’s Walter Erviti and Santiago Silva but 20-year-old Emanuel Cecchini has proved a real find for Julio César Falcioni. A combative presense in midfield, Cecchini is a good passer of the ball and has popped up with two goals but perhaps the most exciting prospect has been Independiente’s Ezequiel Barco. The pint-sized 17-year-old has never looked overawed and despite his age, has at times been the player that El Rojo look to when the chips are down. Always looking forward, Barco provides an urgency and verticality that is often missing in Independiente’s play and although he still only has one goal to his name, there has been a growing dependency on the youngster at times.
Manager of the season (so far)
As already mentioned Diego Osella and Frank Kudelka deserve praise for the performances of Newell’s and Talleres respectively but the turnaround of Banfield under Julio César Falcioni is remarkable. El Taladro won just two matches in the Torneo Transición and when they began this season with a thumping at the hands of River Plate, a relegation struggle looked likely. Fast forward a couple of months and Banfield end the season as the Primera’s form side and are four points behind league leaders Boca Juniors. Walter Erviti and Santiago Silva have produced their best form in years and with a blend of youth players, things suddenly look a lot more positive.
Underachievers of the season (so far)
While you could look at Rosario Central down in 22nd and argue that El Canalla have seriously underperformed, it was clear that Eduardo Coudet’s focus was the Copa Argentina so it is perhaps in Avellaneda where you find two of this season’s biggest disappointments. Racing Club ending the year with three consecutive defeats sees La Academia already ten points off the lead and cost Ricardo Zielinski his job while a couple of blocks over, Independiente are just a point better off and also start 2017 under new management. Both should have been genuine title challengers but Zielinski looked out of his depth with Racing and Gabi Milito never quite seemed to be able to implement his ideas.