River turns to experience and love of the shirt in bid to recapture Copa Libertadores

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With Germán Lux, Javier Pinola, Ignacio Scocco and Enzo Pérez all through the door of the Monumental, Jack Tilghman examines River Plate’s bold moves in the transfer market…

As River Plate took the field in El Monumental on May 28th against Rosario Central, the Millonarios held their destiny in their own hands. Win their remaining matches, including a game in hand against Atlético Tucumán and two Clásicos away to San Lorenzo and home to Racing, and they would be champions. Yet since that date, almost everything that could have gone wrong for the gallinas has. After a scoreless draw against Rosario, River lost both Clásicos and was then embroiled in a doping scandal that saw Camilo Mayada and Lucas Martínez Quarta suspended by CONMEBOL indefinitely. Amidst rumors that he could also be involved, star striker Sebastián Driussi was sold to Zenit St. Petersburg.

The sum was massive (15 million net euros for the club), but many River fans asked if the club would actually spend their new found cash on top quality reinforcements capable of winning the Copa Libertadores for the second time in three seasons. The team needed to add players in defense, midfield, up front, and perhaps most importantly, in goal, where 21-year-old Augusto Batalla had endured a horrific season, particularly in the big games. His errors against Racing and San Lorenzo in particular, were fresh in the minds of supporters.

With the doping scandal still swirling around the media and things looking bleak with just ten days before the crucial last 16 match in Asunción against Guaraní, River President Rodolfo D’Onofrio and Sporting Director Enzo Francescoli began making moves for players not only with experience in the Libertadores, but with a love for River.

In Argentine football, it has always been important for the fans to not only have a successful team on the field, but to have players who played the game like a supporter between the lines. Remarkably, River was able to find four quality reinforcements in less than a week who would greatly improve the squad and shared the fans’ passion for the club.

River partisan journalists first began reporting the signing of goalkeeper Germán Lux before River finished up the League season, and sure enough, the morning after River’s final match against Colón, ‘Poroto’ arrived to undergo his medical examination before signing his contract with D’Onofrio in the evening.

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Lux, 35, spent five years in the River first team between 2001 and 2006, and although he never established himself as a full time starter in Spain, he made 25 starts in 2016-17, making 76 saves for Deportivo La Coruña. He has ‘returned home’ after eleven years in Europe, and like many club icons, including Fernando Cavenaghi, he was estranged from Nuñez during the presidency of Daniel Passarella, barred from even entering the dressing room, but has seen the door reopened under Rodolfo D’Onofrio’s mandate.

It does appear that Batalla will retain his spot in the line up for Tuesday’s match in Paraguay after Gallardo underlined the ex-Mallorca man’s long inactivity (the Spanish season ended May 21st), but it is not far-fetched to think that Lux could be in goal for the return leg on August 8th after getting quality training time with his new defense. With Lux in goal, River reached the semifinals of the Libertadores in 2004 and 2005, and the quarter-finals in 2006. Even if Lux doesn’t overtake Batalla in the pecking order, he will at the minimum be on hand to tutor the youngster and share his experience with River, in Spain, and also the Argentine National Team, with whom he won an Olympic gold medal.

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The next signing to come through was that of 34-year-old defender Javier Pinola. Although his advanced age may have raised some eyebrows, the enforcer has long been on River’s radar and is the perfect replacement for the suspended Martinez Quarta. Forgotten by many and completely unknown to most, Pinola joined Rosario Central in 2015 after ten years of playing for FC Nuremberg in Germany.

In recent years, Pinola has worked his way into national team consideration, first under Tata Martino, and now under Jorge Sampaoli, who called him up for last month’s friendlies against Brazil and Singapore.

Although he began his career at Chacarita Juniors from the Municipality of San Martín, Pinola was born in Olivos, a leafy suburb just north of the city of Buenos Aires and well populated by River fans, and Pinola was one of them. It is no surprise that he chose River over Boca, who were also after his signature. Just days later, Pinola would be joined by another player who without having played for the Nuñez club, had long been known to be a fan: Ignacio Scocco.

Although Scocco told journalists on Thursday afternoon that he was a Newell’s fan, it has long been known that the ex-Newell’s striker is a River supporter. In a 2010 interview with Olé, when asked about the chance to play for River, ‘Nacho’ replied: “I dream about playing for River. I’ll fight to play in River. It must be something unique and special… In my room, I had a poster of Enzo (Francescoli), of River’s undefeated championship team in ’94, of the Libertadores ’96, and the Supercopa ’97.”

During his time at Newell’s, Scocco had the chance to play under coach Américo ‘el Tolo’ Gallego, a World Cup winner with Argentina and a River legend in his playing days, and with Ariel Ortega, who invited Scocco to play in his testimonial match in El Monumental in July 2013. It was there where River fans gave the reigning top scorer in Argentina an ovation amidst rumors he would be headed to Nuñez. Instead, Scocco joined Internacional in Brasil. For that reason, the arrival of Scocco may feel a little bittersweet for gallinas. In 2013,  the ex-Pumas and AEK Athens striker was 28 and coming off the best season of his career. Not only did he finish as top scorer in Argentina, but he led the lepers to the 2013 Clausura title and the semifinals of the Copa Libertadores.

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Although 12 goals in 25 games (24 starts) is a very decent return, it remains to be seen if Scocco will be able to build the type of partnership with Lucas Alario that Sebastián Driussi had established over the last season and a half, yet there is no denying that if Scocco can hit top form, few strikers on the continent possess his quality.

The last, and biggest name to sign, was that of Enzo Pérez. The Mendoza native has a sparkling resume, that includes a Copa Libertadores winner’s medal with Estudiantes de La Plata, stints as captain of Benfica and Valencia, and a place in the starting line up in the 2014 World Cup Final. Like Scocco and Pinola, despite never having played for River before his 30th birthday, he has long made public his love for the red and white shirt of River Plate. In fact, his father named him after River legend Francescoli. Although many recall Francescoli’s  second spell wth River in the 90’s, he started dazzling for the millionaires in the 1980s, twice finishing as top scorer in the Argentine Primera División, including 1986, the year Enzo Pérez was born.

So great was Perez’ and his family’s desire to play for River that he turned down offers from various clubs, including Newcastle United, who reportedly offered Valencia double what the Nuñez outfit did. “I dove into the pool at 2 AM to celebrate River’s 3-1 win in La Bombonera,” Pérez told Olé before his signing was made official, and reiterated his passion for the club during the official presentation of the four signings.

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Perez will certainly add quality to River’s side, but the question remains where Gallardo will fit in the ex-Valencia. As a youngster coming through at Godoy Cruz and Estudiantes, Perez was a wide midfielder, a position he also played in his debut for the National Team in a crucial 2009 World Cup qualifier against Peru. Since then, however, Enzo has moved more into the middle of the field and played in a more withdrawn role. With Ariel Rojas, Nacho Fernández, and captain Leonardo Ponzio all consolidated in the starting midfield, it will be interesting to see what formation El Muñeco goes with, though it is clearly a problem any manager in South America would love to have.

Clearly, River has been the most active of the clubs in the transfer window, but there are many doubts as well. Each of the signings is at least 31, and being a fan of a club does not always guarantee success. In recent years, the likes of Cristian Fabbiani and Jonathan Bottinelli have declared themselves River fans only to be massive flops. Although the quality of these four signings is miles greater than the aforementioned failures, the task of winning the Libertadores won’t be easy. Guaraní may not have big name players or a massive fan base, but it is a well run club that River only just got past in the semifinals two years ago. River certainly has reloaded, but the fans will only be truly content with a Libertadores crown, due the eternal debt the club has with its history, that is, having won only three titles despite amassing the most semifinal appearances and most overall wins in the competition’s storied history.

You can follow Jack Tilghman on Twitter here.

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