River Plate and Marcelo Gallardo look to reload and move on from disappointing 2017

Ahead of an important 2018 for River Plate, Jack Tilghman takes a look at the excellent business the club has done during the window and the task ahead for Marcelo Gallardo…

For a club with the history and tradition of excellence like River Plate, lifting the Copa Argentina, a competition that has only existed in its current format since 2012, was never going to be enough to placate the millions of demanding River supporters. Especially following the team’s embarrassing collapse to Lanús in the Copa Libertadores semi-finals, which was followed by a 2-1 loss at home to arch rivals Boca Juniors in the league just five days later.

Yet despite the disappointments on the pitch and a series of lacklustre signings off it, River members flooded the ballot boxes to reelect incumbent President Rodolfo D’Onofrio with nearly 75% of the vote. D’onofrio in turn kept faith with coach Marcelo Gallardo by offering him a four-year contract extension and opening up his check book to bring in much needed top class reinforcements.

So far, the results have been promising. Even without their new signigns, River toppled a much weakened Boca Juniors in the Superclásico in Mar del Plata, thanks to a goal from the much maligned Rafael Santos Borré. Although far from a vintage performance, there was hope that with the three big name signings, and perhaps a few more to come, River will be a different animal in 2018.

The first chip to fall was former São Paulo striker Lucas Pratto, who was brought in for a club record $11 million transfer fee.

With the losses of star striking duo Lucas Alario and Sebastián Driussi during the European summer window, River became overly reliant on Ignacio Scocco for the goals. The former Newell’s Old Boy man did deliver plenty, scoring in both legs of the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores, the final of the Copa Argentina, and a memorable five-goal display in the Libertadores quarter-finals, amongst other strong matches.

Yet, there was a clear need up front, with young Colombian Rafael Santos Borré struggling to adapt and Carlos Auzqui misfiring time and again.

Pratto was perhaps the best option available on the continent. One can hope his Superclásico goal will give Borré hope, but even with Pratto, he will need to be more ruthless and clinical in front of goal and aggressive when challenging for the ball or making runs than he showed last year.

A Boca Juniors youth product, Pratto came to the forefront while playing in Chile before being the leading man at Vélez Sarsfield. His exploits at the Liniers based club brought the attention of Brazilian giants Atlético Mineiro, where he starred before moving onto São Paulo.

Although his time in São Paulo was not as prolific as either of his previous two stops (just seven league goals in 35 games), he did score twice for the Argentina National Team, including a header in the high-pressure atmosphere of a World Cup qualifier against Colombia in San Juan in November 2016. His presence alone should take the pressure off Scocco, whose versatility still makes him irreplaceable up front.

The second big name to come was Atlético Nacional man Franco Armani. Although he never played in the Argentine top flight, Armani became a legend at the Medellín giants helping them to their second Libertadores title in 2016. It is the hope of Gallardo and all River supporters that Armani can be the man to fill the massive void left by Marcelo Barovero, who left the club in the middle of 2016.

After Barovero’s departure, Gallardo turned to youngster Augusto Batalla, who proved to be just too green for the position, making many high profile errors in his year as River’s number one.

Batalla’s inconsistency led to the signing of 35-year-old veteran Germán Lux from Deportivo La Coruña to be a safe pair of hands for the run-in in the Libertadores. Unfortunately, Lux proved not to be the solution, as he was at the center of the storm following River’s tremendous collapse against Lanús and further capitulation against Boca less than a week later. Although he made no calamitous errors, Lanús scored with all four shots on target, leaving those watching with the impression that although Lux was not to blame completely for the goals, he could have done more in keeping them out. The same could be said a few days later when he couldn’t stop Edwin Cardona’s free kick or Nahitan Nández’s late winner in the Superclásico.

The last of the trio of big name signings is that of Juan Fernando Quintero, who joins the club on a year-long loan with an option to buy after a successful season at Armani’s cross town rivals in Medellín, Deportivo Independiente Medellín, in which he netted 13 goals in 25 league games, including one against River in the Libertadores group stage.

Despite his good form, many questions exist about the player’s attitude and commitment. After scoring a goal and putting in strong performances with Colombia at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the idea that Quintero would be back in South America four years later would have seemed crazy. Yet poor form, injuries, and the previously mentioned attitude problems saw Quintero fail at both Porto and Rennes before returning to his native Colombia. If Gallardo can get the player motivated, a task that shouldn’t be difficult considering it is another World Cup year, he will be a valuable acquisition who will most likely be heading back to Europe in the near future.

These signings certainly give River fans a certain amount of optimism, but there are still question marks, particularly in defense and in the depth of the squad.

Since Gallardo’s arrival following the World Cup in 2014, River has been unable to win a local league title, often having to play alternative line ups in order to save their best for international competitions. Most River fans would gladly have traded a few local titles for the Libertadores and Sudamericana titles Gallardo was able to win, but the fact that Boca has been so dominant has made River’s struggles on the domestic scene almost impossible to swallow.

League title success is by far el Muñeco’s biggest outstanding debt with the River supporters, and it seems almost impossible to turn around at least in the first half of 2018, as the Millonarios sit 15 points behind Boca with 15 rounds left to play. Even with Boca in crisis with the off field scandal surrounding Colombian trio Edwin Cardona, Frank Fabra, and Wilmar Barrios, the gap is all but insurmountable.

With such a massive gap to make up, Gallardo will again focus on the Libertadores, but he must not lose sight of the local league, as River can still qualify for the 2019 version of the continent’s top competition.

Too often since he has been in charge of the club Gallardo has taken his eye of the ball in the league and he must now try and return the confidence D’Onofrio, the board, and fans have shown in him with not only a Libertadores challenge, but a strong performance in the Superliga after so many stumbles in recent years.

You can follow Jack Tilghman on Twitter here.

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