2017 review: A year in Argentine football

For the first time since in four years Argentina didn’t have a major tournament to compete in during the course of the year but that didn’t prevent 2017 being almost every bit as dramatic.

World Cup qualification was a drawn out painful affair but provided Lionel Messi with the platform to remind any remaining doubters why he should be worshipped, the Argentinian Football Association (AFA) underwent changes to try and move towards normality and the shiny, new Superliga began.

As is almost always the case in Argentina, none of this was without drama so here is a recap of the past twelve months…

January

2016 ended with Boca on top but with Carlos Tevez heading for China. One year on and Boca are still leading the way and all the talk is of Carlitos returning to La Bombonera. On the surface not much has changed but it’s been a typically turbulent year in Argentina so read on.

The sweltering January temperatures put pay to any competitive football as they do every year but with the year-long league season meaning a Primera champion hadn’t been crowned in December, clubs headed for pre-season with plenty still to play for in 2017.

The summer friendlies produced their usual highly unproductive and highly aggressive encounters as River Plate beat Boca in Mar del Plate in a game with more red cards than goals. While a few days earlier, Racing Club, under returning manager Diego Cocca, made light work of Independiente, after El Rojo had just appointed Ariel Holan to replace Gabriel Milito.

Elsewhere, Juan Sebastián Verón made good on his promise and dusted off his boots to play in pre-season for Estudiantes ahead of the Copa Libertadores and Atlético Tucumán made their debut in the same competition, facing El Nacional in the playoffs.

Argentina’s under-20s began their South American Championship campaign in Ecuador and just as it was last month, Lionel Messi’s statue in Buenos Aires was snapped in two.

February

Not entirely surprisingly the Primera restart was delayed in February due to a disagreement with the Players’ Union over unpaid wages but that didn’t prevent Lanús following up their league title in 2016 with Supercopa victory over Copa Argentina champions River Plate in La Plata.

Atlético Tucumán’s Libertadores adventure continued after the drama of almost missing their second leg against El Nacional, racing with a police escort to the stadium and having to wear the borrowed Argentina shirts from the under-20s, who were also in Quito, before eventually beating Junior for a place in the group stage.

Lending El Decano their kit was virtually the only thing the Argentina under-20s got right in Ecuador as only the brilliance of Lautaro Martínez dragged La Albiceleste to the World Cup. Late goals against Colombia, Brazil and a brace against Venezuela meant Argentina scraped fourth and secured a place in South Korea.

Carlos Tevez made his eagerly anticipated Shanghai Shenhua debut but it proved an omen of things to come as the Chinese Super League club suffered defeat at home to Brisbane Roar, limping out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage. And matters weren’t much better back at Boca as Juan Manuel Insaurralde and Jonathan Silva were forced to apologise for a training ground bust-up caught on the television cameras.

And in Europe, Lille excitedly confirmed that Marcelo Bielsa would be returning to management in the summer (hindsight is a wonderful thing) and Mario Kempes was stripped of his ambassadorial role at Valencia after criticising the club.

March

With the players strike ongoing and the threat of FIFA action looming, an agreement eventually saw the Primera season resume and Boca Juniors picked up where they left off. Tevez may have gone but Darío Benedetto immediately proved why he was the most lethal striker in Argentina with a brace on the opening weekend against Banfield.

Argentina’s World Cup qualification limped along as Edgardo Bauza’s tenure drew every closer to its inevitable end. Victory over Chile was overshadowed by Lionel Messi’s verbal outburst towards an official, earning the captain a four-match suspension at a time when La Albiceleste could ill afford to be without him. And that was immediately proved correct as days later, Bauza’s side suffered defeat away to Bolivia.

Argentina’s under-17s crashed out of the South American championship at the first stage and as Diego Maradona drew the under-20s in a tricky looking group for the World Cup, the AFA elected a new president in Claudio Tapia. Amid strikes, failing coaches, suspended stars and deteriorating youth sides, Chiqui’s job couldn’t have looked more complicated.

Things might not have been going well for Messi in the colours of Argentina but back in Barcelona, the world’s best player was helping the Blaugrana overturn a 4-0 first leg defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. It wasn’t to be Barça’s year but the 6-1 win over PSG will live long in the memory.

And in South America, the Copa Libertadores group stage got underway for River, Lanús, San Lorenzo, Estudiantes, Godoy Cruz and Atlético Tucumán while the Copa Sudamericana gradually began to wake up

April

Defeat to Bolivia and the appointment of a new AFA president meant the writing was on the wall for Edgardo Bauza and so when the axe eventually swung, it came as little surprise. Despite several meetings it was clear El Patón wasn’t the man for Tapia and even before Bauza had left Ezeiza, the Sampaoli rumours began.
Sevilla understandably got the hump with the pursuit of their manager and threatened legal action and while nothing came of it, it became clear that come the end of the season, Argentina would be getting their man.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Chiqui though with the usual disorganisation seeing Ezequiel Barco withdraw from the under-20 World Cup squad and football violence hitting the headlines once more. April’s Clásico Cordobés was marred by the dreadful scenes of Belgrano supporter Emanuel Balbo thrown to his death from the stands.

The Primera season continued on though with Newell’s Old Boys drawing level with Boca Juniors at the top while Juan Sebastián Verón made his Estudiantes playing return in the Copa Libertadores.

And while Lionel Messi waited to see if his international suspension would be lifted, the Argentinian struck his 500th Barcelona goal in a memorable 3-2 clásico win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu.

May

The good news for Messi and Argentina was that the four-match ban was overturned and as Argentina were able to start looking forward to securing World Cup qualification, so too could former boss Edgardo Bauza as he was swiftly unveiled as the UAE manager. El Patón wasn’t alone in taking up employment in that part of the world as Diego Maradona also signed a contract with second division club, Fujairah.

Argentina under-20s started badly at the World Cup in South Korea after suffering defeat to England and didn’t get much better, crashing out at the first hurdle once more.

River Plate made the Primera title race interesting with victory over Boca Juniors in La Bombonera, Newell’s were unable to take advantage with defeat to Central and Independiente beat Racing Club during the last fecha de clásicos. However, even with a full round of derbies in May, Nelson Vivas stole the show with his astonishing Incredible Hulk impersonation on the touchline during Estudiantes’ draw with Boca.

The Copa Libertadores group stage came to an end with River Plate, Lanús, San Lorenzo and Godoy Cruz all reaching the last 16, albeit with varying degrees of ease, while in the Copa Sudamericana, Defensa y Justicia historically knocked out São Paulo and Huracán pulled off a remarkable comeback against Deportivo Anzoátegui.

There were plenty of shocks in the Copa Argentina too as Primera teams fell to lower league opposition. Primera C club Sacachispas catching the eye ahead of knocking out Arsenal with their bizarre masked team photo.

June

All challengers eventually fell by the wayside and so Boca Juniors were deservedly crowned Primera champions but while the title race lost much of its late drama, the fight for Copa Libertadores spots went down to the wire. River secured second, Estudiantes and Racing produced late pushes and so it came down to Ezequiel Barco’s missed penalty against Lanús that gifted Banfield a place in the 2018 Copa Libertadores at the expense of El Rojo.

At the opposite end, Sarmiento, Atlético de Rafaela, Quilmes all lost their fights for survival and Olimpo’s victory over Aldosivi on the final day condemned El Tiburón to the Nacional B.

Jorge Sampaoli was officially unveiled as the new Argentina manager to the surprise of absolutely no one and the Copa América winning coach began his tenure with a friendly win over Brazil in Melbourne and a thrashing of Singapore.

The draws for the knockout stages of the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana took place for the eight Argentinian clubs still involved in the two competitions but River Plate’s task was made more difficult by the sale of Sebastián Driussi to Zenit St. Petersburg.

July

Driussi’s surprise move to Russia proved to be the beginning of an Argentine revolution at Zenit with Leandro Paredes, Emanuel Mammana, Emiliano Rigoni and Matías Kranevitter all joining him as transfer season went into full swing.

Boca Juniors said farewell to Ricardo Centurión after his partying ways put pay to a possible permanent move and instead Genoa took a punt on the troublesome but talented winger; Marcos Acuña sealed his deserved move to Europe with Sporting CP snapping up El Huevo from Racing; Emanuel Cecchini’s impressive form took the youngster to Malaga; Maxi Rodríguez bid a tearful goodbye to Newell’s; Guido Pizarro finally arrived in Europe with Sevilla; Lucas Biglia made a big money switch to Milan and River opted for experience ahead of the Copa Libertadores bringing in Nacho Scocco, Germán Lux, Enzo Pérez and Javier Pinola.

Fernando Cavenaghi got his official send-off from River supporters at the Monumental and a couple of his former teammates also made the news. Pablo Aimar and Diego Placente were among those named as coaches in the shake-up at Argentinian youth level as Claudio Tapia and Jorge Sampaoli aimed to address the deep rooted problems.

However, aside from the endless transfer news, the major story in Argentina was Gabriel Heinze leading Argentinos Juniors back into the top flight and Chacarita Juniors eventually snatching the second promotion place.

August

As the football season got underway in Europe so too did the repackaged Superliga in Argentina and with the increased television money it was already clear that champions Boca Juniors remained the team to beat.

As Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side managed to fend off interest in Darío Benedetto and Cristian Pavón, rivals River Plate saw Lucas Alario snapped up by Bayer Leverkusen, seriously weakening Los Millonarios. River brought in Uruguayan youngster Nicolás De La Cruz and Rafael Santos Borré but it has been a damaging window for Marcelo Gallardo.

Elsewhere, Argentina’s next generation, Esteban Rolón, Juan Foyth and Santiago Ascacibar headed for Europe, Fiorentina invested heavily in Giovanni Simeone and Germán Pezzella and Marcelo Bielsa’s new project at Lille got underway.

The Copa Libertadores last 16 ties saw Godoy Cruz come up short against Grêmio while River, Lanús and San Lorenzo all marched on but Los Cuervos were to have no such luck in the Copa Argentina. Diego Aguirre’s side became another victim to the lower league sides as Deportivo Morón stunned El Ciclón.

September

Jorge Sampaoli’s real work began in September but a car accident in Amsterdam that left Sergio Agüero with a broken rib was an early blow and things got far worse. The boring, goalless draw in Montevideo wouldn’t have been so bad if Argentina didn’t then follow it up with another draw at home to Venezuela. World Cup qualification hung in the balance with just two games remaining.

The glorious football of 2006 were a distant memory and the man who put the finishing touches to one of the World Cup’s greatest goals called it a day as Esteban Cambiasso hung up his boots.

Boca Juniors continued a perfect start to the Superliga and even just weeks into the new season looked odds-on to retain their title. However, this form didn’t carry over to the Copa Argentina, where Rosario Central took revenge for their previous cup defeats to eliminate Los Xeneizes.

Conversely River Plate’s league form suffered but following a 3-0 defeat away to Jorge Wilstermann, Marcelo Gallardo’s side produced a remarkable 8-0 second leg victory to secure a place in the Copa Libertadores semi final. Lanús would be their opponents after El Granate also overturned a first leg defeat to beat San Lorenzo on penalties.

Meanwhile in the Copa Sudamericana, Independiente fought off Atlético Tucumán for a place in the quarter finals, Racing Club joined them with victory over Corinthians to maintain the possibility of a clásico semi final and Estudiantes limped out to Nacional.

October

And so it came to this. Argentina took Peru to La Bombonera in an effort to change their recent fortune and secure the three points that would all but book a place in Russia. The stage was set, the supporters were raucous but the performance didn’t come. Fernando Gago made his international return and lasted five minutes before rupturing his knee ligaments on yet another frustrating blank for La Albiceleste.

The goalless draw left Argentina needing a win in Quito. It was now or never and the possibility of Lionel Messi and co watching the World Cup on television became all the more real. Jorge Sampaoli and the country needed some magic and with the word watching Lionel Messi delivered. A stunning solo performance and hat-trick sealed the victory over Ecuador that took Argentina to the World Cup and the relief from Quito to Buenos Aires was clear.

Things were no less dramatic in the Copa Libertadores as River Plate looked certain to be returning to the final after taking a 3-0 aggregate lead away to Lanús but a José Sand goal just before half time in the second leg sparked a remarkable fight back. Four goals in 23 minutes took El Granate through to a first ever Libertadores final, where the formidable Grêmio lay in wait.

Independiente were still going strong in the Copa Sudamericana but Ariel Holan found himself threatened by the club’s barra brava after refusing to pay for their support – an incident which would have effects before the end of the year.

November

Lanús had defied the odds against San Lorenzo and against River but they needed to go one better if they were to make history and lift the Copa Libertadores. Grêmio had been the tournament’s standout side and ultimately proved too strong for Jorge Almirón’s side. A narrow first leg defeat in Porto Alegre brought the two sides back to La Fortaleza but inspired by Arthur and Luan, the Brazilians secured a deserved victory and wrecked Lanús’ dreams.

Racing’s elimination to Libertad in the Copa Sudamericana meant there was to be no Clásico de Avellaneda in the semi finals but El Rojo did manage to see off the Paraguayans to seal a place in a first major final since 2007.

In the Superliga, Boca’s Superclásico win over River Plate at the Monumental had many writing off the title race already but defeat to Racing the following week and a serious knee injury to Darío Benedetto quickly changed the outlook.

River were not one of the teams looking to close the gap on Boca with title hopes already over but Los Millonarios did still have the Copa Argentina up for grabs after victory over Deportivo Morón in the semi finals, to set up a date with Atlético Tucumán.

With qualification now secured Jorge Sampaoli began his World Cup preparations and headed to Russia for a couple of friendlies. Sergio Agüero scored to hand Argentina victory over hosts Russia but defensive flaws were all too evident in defeat to Nigeria.

Despite the defeat it was a good month for Agüero, who did his claim to be Argentina’s number nine no harm and also became Manchester City’s record goal scorer.

And while Sampaoli clearly still had plenty of work to do, the AFA’s youth shake-up yielded immediate results with Diego Placente’s under-15s lifting the South American Championship after a dramatic win over Brazil.

December

With the Superliga drawing to its summer close, Boca Juniors sat out in front but the end of year belonged to Independiente after Ariel Holan’s impressive side put the years of recent heartache and frustration behind them to lift the Copa Sudamericana. A tense final was eventually won in the famous Maracaná with young Ezequiel Barco netting the all important penalty to secure a 3-2 aggregate win.

Celebrations were cut short when Holan announced he wouldn’t be staying on in light of those earlier barra threats but a few days later, the club were able to reconcile and El Rojo’s supporters got the Christmas they wanted.

Jorge Almirón was another coach on the move but after quitting Lanús following the Copa Libertadores final, his proposed switch to Las Palmas was nipped in the bud due to his perceived lack of experience. Atlético Nacional, the beneficiaries, as Almirón headed to Colombia to continue his career.

Marcelo Gallardo earned a positive end to 2017 with River Plate’s victory over Atlético Tucumán in the Copa Argentina final but some serious investment will be needed over the summer ahead of next year and amid a host of managerial comings-and-goings Vélez Sarsfield announced that Gabriel Heinze would be in their dugout.

El Gringo will have to do without centre forward Maxi Romero, who sealed a €10 million switch to PSV, and another young striker on the move will be Lautaro Martínez. Racing will keep hold of the 20-year-old until at least June before he links up with Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid.

Lionel Messi ended the year in sensational form helping Barcelona to a resounding victory over Real Madrid and a formidable lead in La Liga and now Argentina hope that their captain carries this into 2018. December’s World Cup draw made next year’s tournament all the more real and La Albiceleste know that Nigeria, Croatia and Iceland lie ahead in Russia.

And this wasn’t the only draw as in Asunción, Argentina’s representatives in the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana learned their fate. Early in 2018 the process starts all over again and when the group stages begin in March, there are some tantalising fixtures to look forward to.

That was 2017 in Argentinian football – thanks to you if you got through all that and huge thanks for supporting Golazo over the course of the year. If you have contributed, liked, shared or even just read something on the page then I am grateful for your support. 

Plenty more to come in 2018 and I will try to publish as much as possible in the time that I can spare. Lots of plans but little time! 

Thanks again and happy new year.

Peter

Editor

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