Out of excuses: The time has arrived for Marcelo Gallardo to end River’s league title drought and Boca’s dominance

While no one can question Marcelo Gallardo’s record as River Plate manager, Jack Tilghman returns to say it is time for El Muñeco to mount a serious league title challenge…

The 27th of July marked the four-year anniversary of Marcelo Gallardo’s debut as River Plate manager. The start was anything but spectacular — The Millonarios could only manage a scoreless draw in Salta against second division side Ferro, prevailing in a penalty shoot out (West Ham star Manuel Lanzini actually missed his spot kick in what would be his final match in a River shirt). 

Since that inauspicious start, Gallardo’s time at River has often been spectacular. He has managed 106 victories against just 43 defeats and 57 draws. In 2014, he guided the team to the Copa Sudamericana title, ending a 17-year drought of international trophies. A year later, he brought the Copa Libertadores back to Nuñez after 19 years, and added two Recopa Sudamericanas and a Suruga Bank trophy to his impressive international trophy haul. 

Domestic cups have also proven to be a happy hunting ground for El Muñeco and his men, twice lifting the Copa Argentina, and last march beating Superclásico rivals Boca Juniors in the Argentine Super Cup in what was just the second final between Argentina’s two biggest clubs. 

The impact of the Super Cup triumph cannot be overstated. At the time, River were struggling not just in the domestic league, but also in the Copa Libertadores. Since then, however, River has not lost a match, winning 12 of their 15 matches, reaching a total of 19 games without defeat. 

Yet, despite all the success, there is one major piece of silverware missing on Gallardo’s CV: a league title. Gallardo has made it no secret that getting River to win trophies internationally has been his main goal since taking over, and more often than not, El Muñeco has rested players domestically in order to be ready for the Libertadores or Sudamericana. While no River fan would trade the Copa Libertadores or Sudamericana for domestic glory, there has been a very worrying trend on the national front. 

Since River’s last title in May 2014 under Ramón Díaz, Boca Juniors have won three league titles, including the last two. One of River’s greatest accomplishments as an institution is three times winning three domestic titles on the trot, a feat made all the greater because Boca has never managed it once, yet now they are on the brink, and with a star studded squad, River looks to be the only team deep enough to put up a strong title challenge. Although River still holds a strong edge over Boca in titles during the professional era (35 to 27), River supporters will be desperate to make sure Boca does not get its much desired Tricampeonato. 

All these factors and more make the Superliga River’s main objective in this 2018-19 season. Although the Libertadores is always a dream for any club, one bad half of football can see that dream become a nightmare, as River found out against Lanús in last year’s semifinal, while the domestic title goes to the team that has the most consistent and efficient championship. 

This year’s Superliga, is just 25 games, an absurdly short number of matches, but a circumstance that should play into River’s hands. So often Argentine clubs struggle to find the right balance between the league and international tournaments, but with only 25 matches instead of 38 before 2015 and 30 since, River players have no excuse when it comes to fixture overload. 

There has never been a doubt that the taxing, long-distance plane rides around the continent or playing in high altitude places such as Quito or La Paz make building a two front challenge difficult, but this time, River can’t use that as an excuse. The club’s Round of 16 opponent in the Libertadores is Racing, located just on the outskirts of Buenes Aires in Avellaneda. If River is able to get past La Academia, the quarterfinal match up would be against Independiente, also from Avellaneda, or Santos, just a two and a half hour flight from Buenos Aires, and at sea level. 

Lack of travel within the local tournament will also alleviate stress on the squad. River does not have to travel outside of the Buenos Aires province until the 13th Round when they face Godoy Cruz in Mendoza, a city where the millonarios enjoy a massive amount of support. 

With a schedule tailored for them, River also has a squad built for battling on two fronts. Although no reinforcements have been signed as of yet and Uruguayan left-back Marcelo Sarracchi was sold to RB Leipzig in June, River has many options all across the pitch. 

In goal, Argentina goalkeeper Franco Armani is the main man. His brilliant performances playing for Atlético Nacional in Colombia took him to Nuñez, where his astonishing displays earned him a spot in Argentina’s World Cup squad. Armani should be between the sticks every match, regardless of opponent. 

Gonzalo Montiel has made the rightback position his own, putting in some surprisingly effective attacking displays since being converted from center back. In the middle of defense, Gallardo can choose from a three of vice-captain Jonathan Maidana, Javier Pinola, and youngster Lucas Martinez Quarta. With Maidana suspended for the first leg against Racing, Martínez Quarta looks to be given a run out in the Copa, but look for Maidana to start in the league debut at Huracán in Parque Patricios three days later. 

Midfield is where River has the most talent and depth. Captain Leonardo Ponzio is the key man sitting in front of defense, but Bruno Zuculini, formerly of Racing, is a more than capable stand in. Pity Martínez, Nacho Fernández, and young Exequiel Palacios have been given playing time in front of Ponzio, as Enzo Pérez and Juan Fernando Quintero missed the first part of preseason after World Cup duty with Argentina and Colombia respectively.

The continuity of Quintero will be especially important for River after the former Porto and Pescara man showed off his talent in Russia, finishing the tournament with two assists and what was voted the second best goal of the World Cup according to FIFA. Utility man Camilo Mayada can fill in at most places across the midfield or at left or right back if need be. 

Up front, Nacho Scocco and Lucas Pratto, two traditional penalty area players who originally struggled to play together, seem to be building quite a chemistry in preseason and the first two Copa Argentina matches, a 7-0 romp over Central Norte and 3-1 win over Villa Dálmine. Waiting in the wings will be Colombian Rafael Santos Borré, who hit good form last season sealing two clásico victories with goals against San Lorenzo and Racing, and a Superclásico winner in the Summer Tournament against Boca. Rodrigo Mora, now fully recovered from his injury, gives Gallardo a tireless worker with an eye for goal with big game experience. 

That leaves just one glaring weakness at leftback: Milton Casco.

The difference in River with Marcelo Saracchi in the line up vs. the former Newell’s man last season was monumental. Casco was at fault for various goals in the semi-final collapse against Lanús, while he was caught napping on Nahitan Nández’s winner in the Superclásico against Boca.

Since joining the team in 2015, he has been the target of River fans’ insults and the scapegoat of many defeats, which made left back a position that needed reinforcing. River’s President Rodolfo D’Onofrio and Director of Football Enzo Francescoli found just that in Saracchi, but with his departure, Casco has been thrust back in the starting line up and all River is certainly wary. Various names were rumored to join, including new Boca signing Lucas Olaza, and Gallardo even tried out his 18- year old son Nahuel in the position, but it appears that Casco will be the man in both the league and Libertadores. 

It is clear that River has an obvious weakness, but in South American football, and Argentine football in particular, where clubs are constantly having to sell their best players to Europe and reshuffle their squads, all teams will have weaknesses.

This time, however, with a favorable schedule, and a need to deny Boca its third straight title, River cannot afford to create more weaknesses and Gallardo must stick with his first team as often as possible. For the first time in his career, el Muñeco, dubbed Napoleon by River fans due to his short stature and masterful tactics, mounted a true assault on two fronts. If this is indeed his Waterloo, Boca will almost certainly be the main beneficiaries with few others looking capable of mounting a challenge.

You can follow Jack Tilghman on Twitter here.

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