It seems like an age since Sarmiento and Arsenal got the Primera underway on a Friday evening in August and I suppose in Argentine football it is, given that since 1990 league seasons have been split into two tournaments, but this week finally saw the Torneo 2016/17 draw to a close.
Boca Juniors were crowned champions in 2015, when Julio Grondona’s 30-team franken-league reverted to the year-long calendar and 18 months on, Los Xeneizes repeated the trick to claim their 32nd Primera title.
There is no doubt that Boca are worthy champions; the league table doesn’t lie after all, but there is perhaps something fitting about Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side lifting the title without kicking a ball themselves and instead Banfield’s defeat to San Lorenzo handing them the trophy, 24 hours before their penultimate match away to Olimpo.
Boca’s consistency over the course of the year has seen them deservedly stay ahead of the pack, as the closest challengers either fluffed their lines when opportunities did arise, or left their runs a little too late.
After opening day defeat to Lanús, Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s ability to galvanise his troops and grind out vital wins is perhaps the 44-year-old coach’s greatest strength and the telling factor in the title triumph. While those around them stumbled, Boca recorded victories over all the other grandes and slipped to only three defeats over the course of the season.
Carlos Tevez was central to that mindset on the pitch during the first half of the season but was finding his return to Argentina far from the fairytale he had expected. A foul-mouthed rant aimed at referee Germán Delfino earned him a three-match ban and the 33-year-old gave his first hint that perhaps the return wasn’t for good.
However, Tevez helped Boca to a fourteen-match unbeaten streak after that opening day with five goals and seven assists in eleven appearances, sending them to at the half way stage. El Apache’s parting gift before his eye-watering $600,000-per-week move to China, an unplayable performance in the Monumental as Boca defeated River Plate 4-2.
A dispute over unpaid wages prompted the Players’ Union to strike, postponing the restart of the season until well into March and when a Tevez-less Boca lost to Talleres in La Bombonera, many began to question whether Barros Schelotto’s side still had what it takes to win the league.
At times it may not have been pretty but Darío Benedetto proved to be the lethal goal scorer that Boca had hoped for and with Ricardo Centurión and Cristian Pavón in support, the 27-year-old centre-forward plundered 21 league goals to finish the season as top scorer. The attacking trident with Fernando Gago, Wilmar Barrios and Pablo Pérez behind in Barros Schelotto’s preferred 4-3-3 found a balance and structure that sides found incredibly difficult to get the better of.
A late blip gave the chasing pack hope but a resurgent, and at the time unexpected, victory over Independiente all but sealed the title with three matches remaining.
Contenders make do with a Libertadores spot
Lifting the Primera trophy was of course the ultimate goal for all the top sides but securing 2018 Copa Libertadores was of almost equal importance and it was arguably Boca’s failure to do last year that provided the motivation and the advantage of a lighter schedule that proved instrumental this time round.
River Plate’s poor first half of the season culminating in that defeat to Boca on their own turf and clear focus on the Libertadores had seen any talk of a title challenge disappear but a remarkable run of form in 2017 thanks in no small part due to the form of Sebastián Driussi, Lucas Alario, Pity Martínez and Nacho Fernández saw Los Millonarios ultimately as Boca’s biggest threat.
Gallardo’s relatively small squad was stretched to its limit across competitions and ultimately came up short as did third-placed Estudiantes. El Pincha fell at the group stages in this year’s Copa Libertadores and being among one of the Primera clubs already upset in the Copa Argentina, Nelson Vivas was relieved of his duties, despite a return to the continent’s biggest competition next year.
Vivas won’t be away from the Primera for long having already secured the job with Defensa y Justicia after Sebastián Beccacece was nabbed by Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina coaching team but El Halcón may need to tell the hot-headed coach to keep his cool after this extraordinary reaction against Boca landed him in hot water.
La reacción del técnico de Estudiantes Nelson Vivas tras ser expulsado vs Boca en Argentina. pic.twitter.com/zKnkT7280y
— Boll Sports ® (@BollSports) May 8, 2017
Racing Club and the overachieving underdogs Banfield complete the 2018 Libertadores picture after a dramatic final day which saw Independiente and San Lorenzo fail to secure the victories required to secure a top five finish. Despite a miraculous progression in this year’s Libertadores, Diego Aguirre never really got San Lorenzo looking defensively sound and while Ariel Holan made great strides in his time as Independiente boss, too many home draws cost El Rojo dearly.
Those two therefore had to make do with a place in the Copa Sudamericana and will be joined by Transición champions Lanús, who prioritised Libertadores football over the defence of their crown; Newell’s Old Boys, who were title contenders until the wheels fell off and Diego Osella resigned under gathering dark clouds; Defensa y Justicia, who displayed title winning form under Beccacece in 2017; and Colón, whose mean defence made them a tough nut to crack.
The relegation battle
Given Argentina’s relegation system being worked out by an average points scored over three season, it’s difficult to argue that a side doesn’t really deserve the drop and although Atlético de Rafaela found themselves in mid-table for this championship, La Crema, just like Sarmiento, had left themselves with too greater mountain to climb.
Quilmes joined them during the penultimate weekend after poor leadership and a wretched run of form eventually caught up with them and on the final day, Aldosivi’s fate was sealed. Huracán, Temperley and Olimpo could all still have gone down heading into the last round but El Tiburón deservedly completed the relegated quartet after slumping to defeat against direct rivals, Olimpo.
No place for managers
Despite relative success for a number of sides (or at least simply meeting expectations) the Argentinian Primera proved a hostile environment and only six of the thirty top flight sides that finished the season are still with the same coach who oversaw the first match of the season.
63 managers in 30 rounds of football is truly staggering and demonstrates just how little time is afforded to a top flight coach and what little value is given to the idea of a project.
Change at the AFA too
The AFA has been in a state of disarray since the death of Julio Grondona in 2014 and following the farcical 38-38 tied vote, Luis Segura was named interim president before his implication in FIFA’s corruption allegations led to Armando Pérez being put in temporary charge of a Normalisation Committee.
Amid threats from FIFA, the delayed restart and growing systemic problems, Claudio Tapia was elected the new president and while the jury remains out, few would grumble with his successful appeal against Lionel Messi’s suspension and the appointment of Jorge Sampaoli.
But somethings sadly never change
If poor management and organisation from the AFA are par for the course so too is violence and nothing shocked the football community more than the death of Belgrano supporter Emanuel Balbo. Images of the 22-year-old being thrown from the stands during the Clásico Cordobés were shown around the world and were a depressing reminder of some of the issues that remain in the nation’s game.
However in spite of the problems it was another exciting season in the Primera and in part two, the all important decisions that determine the winners of the Golazos 2016/17 will be revealed…