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