There is rarely a dull moment in Argentine football and a rollercoaster 2018 proved no different. The bad invariably outweighs the good and that’s certainly been the case this year after a calamitous World Cup campaign and a shameful Copa Libertadores that has left anyone (not a River Plate) fan pretty glad to draw a line and welcome in 2019.
But before a new project, a moment of reflection is required and so here are the ups and desperately deep downs of 2018…
In the scorching hot sun of the Argentinian summer, 2018 started off as any other year. Superliga champions Boca Juniors were still on top of the table in their effort to defend the crown, clubs were laboriously undergoing meaningless preseason games and the transfer window was in full swing.
In fact it was all very familiar – Carlos Tevez was coming back to Boca (again), Ricardo Centurión looked like he was returning to Boca only to irritate Daniel Angelici and ended up back with Racing Club, Vélez Sarsfield celebrated the capture of Mauro Zárate for his third spell at the Estadio José Amalfitani, Independiente’s triumphant Copa Sudamericana side was already being dismantled with Nicolás Tagliafico heading to Ajax and Ezequiel Barco to Atlanta United and after plenty of speculation Marcelo Gallardo signed a new deal with River Plate to stay on as manager until 2021.
With hindsight much of that was actually quite significant.
Gallardo oversaw the arrival of an unknown goalkeeper by the name of Franco Armani and a new club record signing Lucas Pratto (Spoiler: They both turn out pretty well).
And in the one summer friendly that the country really cares about River Plate beat Boca Juniors…you could say it was an omen.
Competitive football got back up and running and Independiente were dealt their first blow of the new year. As Copa Sudamericana champions Ariel Holan’s side were up against Libertadores winners Grêmio in the Recopa and after 210 minutes of football, a penalty shootout was required to seperate the teams. El Rojo had played more than 140 of those minutes with ten men after VAR assisted red cards in both legs but ultimately Martín Benítez’s missed effort from 12 yards handed the Brazilians the trophy.
There was better luck for a former red as Sergio Agüero helped Manchester City to the Carabao Cup with victory over Arsenal.
And Kun wasn’t the only striker among the goals hoping to catch Jorge Sampaoli’s eye in a World Cup year. Lautaro Martínez started the year in tremendous shape and the Argentina coach was a regular at the Cilindro and was on hand to witness the youngster score a Copa Libertadores hat-trick against Cruzeiro.
With continental competition underway, Argentina had already lost one of its representatives – Banfield falling at the last hurdle of qualifying against Nacional.
While Ignacio Scocco set down an early marker for goal of the year with an individual effort that would make Lionel Messi proud.
Once again hindsight would have been a wonderful thing as March provided what were ultimately big indicators of what was to come.
Sampaoli named something of a new look Argentina squad for the international double-header and handed debuts to a Superliga quarter of Maxi Meza, Cristian Pavón, Lautaro Martínez and Fabricio Bustos and while a victory over Italy in Manchester may have sparked some optimism, what happened a few days later in Madrid set off alarms. A record-equalling 6-1 thrashing at the hands of Spain was more than a little concerning with the World Cup only three months away.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 4, 2018
What was clear is that Argentina were still utterly dependent on Lionel Messi and just to hammer home that point, the little genius scored his 600th career goal for Barcelona – a third exquisite free kick in three consecutive LaLiga matches to hand the Blaugrana victory over Atlético Madrid.
If Argentina’s future was clear to see so too perhaps was that of the big two. River Plate and Boca Juniors were pitted against one another in a final (a real rarity at the time) for the Supercopa and it was Marcelo Gallardo’s side who came out on top. Boca could find no way past an inspired Franco Armani and not for the first time, Guillermo Barros Schelotto was left scratching his head.
And sadly the nation mourned the death of charismatic 1978 World Cup winner and Huracán icon René Houseman.
With the Superliga season entering the final straight the relegation ‘battle’ claimed its first victims as Arsenal de Sarandí and Chacarita Juniors were confirmed for the drop. There wasn’t even a whimper with all four sides entrenched in the drop zone all season never looked like fighting their way out and while Chacarita’s spell in the top flight was short-lived, Arsenal’s decline was equally swift following the death of Julio Grondona…how curious.
Matters in the Nacional B were significantly more exciting and after a sensational final day nothing could separate Aldosivi and Almagro for the title and automatic promotion – a playoff would be needed.
The youth leagues wouldn’t normally get a mention but Vélez under-18 forward Ariel Muñoz produced something a tad special in a win over Colón – a nutmeg, a run from halfway and a rabona lob. Safe to say he won’t manage this again if he plays until he’s 50.
And there was success for Argentinos overseas as Lionel Messi levelled Telmo Zarra’s 68-year-old record by scoring in five different Copa del Rey finals in Barcelona’s emphatic victory over Sevilla and Matías Almeyda led Chivas to the CONCACAF Champions League. El Pelado would leave the Mexican club some weeks later but five trophies in three years at a club that looked more likely to be relegated when Almeyda took over is impressive.
Boca Juniors – Superliga champions once again. Guillermo Barros Schelotto led his side to a second successive title but with two wins in the final six fixtures it was more a stumble over the line ahead of a misfiring challenge and an impressive Godoy Cruz, who had left themselves far too much to do from the first half of the campaign.
Things were more than a little edgy in the Copa Libertadores too but a last day thrashing of Alianza Lima and Junior losing to Palmeiras saw Boca progress from the group stages. As did all six Argentinian representatives – River Plate, the only team to do as group winners, but Racing, Independiente, Estudiantes (only just – helped by sacking Lucas Bernardi at just the right time) and Atlético Tucumán (for the first time in their history) all joining Boca in the last 16.
Racing and Independiente had both slipped up on the final day of the Superliga to miss out on Libertadores 2019 qualification and La Academia suffered a further blow by losing to Torneo Federal A side Sarmiento de Resistencia during an upset filled Copa Argentina.
While there was further cause for celebration in the lower leagues with Platense sealing a spot in the Nacional B after a Metropolitana decider and Aldosivi seeing off Almagro for a place back in the top flight.
Former Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza returned from his spell in the Middle East to take over at former club Rosario Central but all eyes were on his national team successor, Jorge Sampaoli as Argentina finalised World Cup preparations.
Mauro Icardi was the big casualty from Sampaoli’s squad to go to Russia as many of the old guard were given one last shot at glory. Lionel Messi’s hat-trick against Haiti at La Bombonera was supposed to be the morale boosting send off but a training ground injury to Sergio Romero and his swift removal from the group was far more damaging.
Amid protests Argentina’s ridiculously organised final warm-up game in Israel was cancelled at the last moment and when Manuel Lanzini suffered a serious knee injury, what was to come in a couple of weeks became painfully foreseeable.
An opening draw with Iceland highlighted by Lionel Messi’s missed penalty was followed by a humbling defeat to Croatia, thanks in no small part to a Willy Caballero howler, and although Marcos Rojo’s late winner against Nigeria meant La Albiceleste avoided the ignominy of a first round exit, it was merely a delay.
Eventual winners France and Kylian Mbappe in particular ripped apart Argentina’s creaking defence to win their last 16 match 4-3 sending Sampa’s side home early to face the music.
San Martín de Tucumán made light work of Sarmiento to take the second promotion spot to the Superliga and a return to the top tier of after a decade and if the forthcoming season wasn’t enough to help football supporters forget about the World Cup, the Copa Libertadores draw set up a tantalising River Plate v Racing Club knockout.
If none of the above came as much of a shock, Marcelo Bielsa rocking up at Leeds United certainly did. Elsewhere, Leandro Romagnoli hung up his boots to move upstairs at San Lorenzo, Javier Pastore was on the move again for big money and Atlanta United continued their Argentine spree with a move for Banfield midfielder Eric Remedi.
The fall out from the disaster in Russia rumbled on and with Sampaoli’s staff jumping ship – Sebastián Beccacece swiftly welcomed back into the bosom at Defensa y Justicia – it was only a matter of time (or more importantly only a matter of money) before Chiqui Tapia lifted the axe.
Sampaoli didn’t much fancy taking charge of the under-20s in L’Alcúdia and with it wrote his own obituary. The AFA came to a financial agreement and with it were back looking for yet another manager, while some chap called Lionel Scaloni assisted by Pablo Aimar took up the challenge of the COTIF tournament.
All the usual names immediately were bandied around, ignoring the fact that Simeone, Pochettino or any right-minded coach in Europe wouldn’t go near the AFA. So what about another chance for D10S? Sadly Diego Maradona was just being named as chairman/manager of Belarusian outfit Dinamo Brest atop of a military vehicle so that was a no go…shame.
Speaking of ill-advised moves, Mauro Zárate had everything agreed to sign permanently with boyhood club Vélez after another bright six-month spell to the delight of his adoring public. However, a last minute change of heart saw Zárate instead sign for Boca and the smell of burning Vélez shirts drifted over Liniers.
And the European summer window brought with it the usual scramble for South American talent. Lautaro Martínez completed a big money move to Inter, Ignacio Pussetto left Huracán for Udinese, Santiago Cáseres the latest off the Vélez production line signed for Villarreal and Stuttgart swooped for Argentinos Juniors’ Nicolás González.
It was only the COTIF tournament, the level of opposition wasn’t always the most taxing and Argentina didn’t even play that well for large parts but with the nation’s football in desperate need of a boost, the Under-20s provided that by lifting the trophy with a 2-1 win over Russia.
Rosario Central’s Alan Marinelli scoring in extra-time handed the title to Los Pibes and the success saw Lionel Scaloni handed the reins to the senior side on a temporary basis. A new, young coach and a fresh, new-look squad was named for the September friendlies with Mauro Icardi, Lautaro Martínez, Santiago Ascacibar, Exequiel Palacios, Pity Martínez and Alan Franco among the exciting changes.
Giovani Lo Celso so inexplicably overlooked by Sampaoli had been almost equally undervalued in Paris and so completed a move to Real Betis and despite now not being called up to national team, the old guard were in the news.
Less than a week after being appointed the new Barcelona captain, Lionel Messi became the club’s most decorated player as the Catalan club defeated Sevilla to lift the Supercopa de España, Sergio Agüero fired Man City to the Community Shield and Gonzalo Higuaín completed a sensational move to AC Milan to make room for Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus.
The Superliga got back underway for every top flight club except Independiente (and opening day opponents San Martín de Tucumán), who were over in Japan lifting the Suruga Bank trophy after victory over Cerezo Osaka. Edgardo Bauza’s Central were the surprise early pace setters with three straight wins (that’s as long as it lasted) and while for six clubs the Copa Libertadores was priority, Franco Armani set a new River Plate club record when the goalkeeper surpassed Amadeo Carrizo’s 800+ minutes without conceding a goal.
River also dispatched of Racing Club in the Copa Libertadores and aside from Estudiantes, narrowly beaten by Grêmio, there were quarter final places for Boca, Independiente and Atlético Tucumán.
None of this came without controversy though. San Lorenzo’s victory over Temuco in the Copa Sudamericana thanks to the Chileans fielding the ineligible Jonathan Requena set in motion a chain of events that left a stain on CONMEBOL and the competition. Santos falling foul of the same blunder against Independiente, River and Boca avoiding punishment and South America’s governing body proving their complete incompetence once more left a bitter taste.
The prospect of a Copa Libertadores Superclásico was still a long way off in September but Boca were left hoping for an opportunity for revenge after River Plate secured a Superliga victory in La Bombonera. The scourge of Boca, Pity Martínez volleyed River ahead and Nacho Scocco rounded off the win with an equally venomous strike as Gallardo once more got the better of his opposite number Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
The chances of a Copa Argentina semi final Superclásico looked more likely than anything else with the draw really opening up for the two Buenos Aires behemoths but Gimnasia stunned Boca to set up a showdown with champions River, who had strolled through against lower league opposition up to this point.
San Lorenzo and Colón crashed out of the Copa Sudamericana leaving Defensa y Justicia as Argentina’s sole survivor.
Diego Maradona ditched Belarus and popped up in Mexico to take charge of second tier club Dorados – with the club struggling and promotion remaining the goal, the majority of people could have been excused for questioning the appointment of the 58-year-old.
And Lionel Scaloni continued his interim charge of Argentina with a comfortable win over Guatemala and a draw with Colombia in the United States.
As River Plate edged past Independiente and Boca Juniors beat Cruzeiro in the Copa Libertadores quarter final, the biggest game in world football creeped one step closer. Champions Grêmio had put an end to plucky Atlético Tucumán’s run, Palmeiras overcame Colo Colo and so two Brazilian giants stood in the way of a Superclásico final – the Megafinal as it was already being dubbed.
Boca’s first leg win over Palmeiras had Los Xeneizes with one foot in the final but when Grêmio snatched a 1-0 win in the Monumental, it looked like River might be the one to slip up. A goal down in the Arena do Grêmio, Marcelo Gallardo donned a hat and coat to try and avoid his touchline ban and sneak into the River changing room. Whatever was said produced a rousing second half and with nine minutes remaining Rafael Santos Borré pulled one back. River needed another and in stoppage time, referee Andrés Cunha spotted something. A quick check with VAR and a Grêmio handball handed Los Millonarios a penalty. Pity Martínez stepped up, slotted in from 12 yards and victory was secured.
A Superclásico with the Copa Libertadores at stake? A nation braced itself.
With all that distraction River saw their club record breaking 32-game unbeaten run come to an end as Colón picked up three points in the Superliga and it was Racing Club, who had put the disappointment of their earlier Libertadores exit swiftly behind them to race away at the top of the table.
Elsewhere domestically, Claudio Biaggio’s luck finally ran out after Temperley pulled off another Copa Argentina shock to dump El Ciclón out and while the Libertadores had gifted the world a Superclásico, the Copa Argentina produced a Clásico Rosarino. Unfortunately it was deemed a little too dangerous to allow both sets of fans to attend and so on a Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium in Sarandí, Central put one over their fierce rivals.
Lionel Messi, still absent from the national team, suffered a fractured arm playing for Barcelona, as Lionel Scaloni’s audition continued. An easy win over Iraq was followed by his first defeat as interim coach – Miranda heading a late goal to give Brazil a 1-0 win.
A sense of excitement and fear gripped Argentina as the world suddenly turned its attention to Argentina for the biggest match in history. More than 100 years of history and finally Boca Juniors and River Plate meet in the final of the Copa Libertadores – it couldn’t be any more important and the concern was always that the clubs, the supporters, Buenos Aires and the country wouldn’t be able to cope.
Rain delayed the first leg by 24 hours to add to the tension but when the two sides did walk out at La Bombonera a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw was played out. The unrivalled passion in the stands, an engaging game of football and left on a knife edge for the second leg – a terrific advert for South American football.
That was until the second leg. The Boca coach attack, players injured, CONMEBOL and FIFA wanting to force the game to be played, the confusion over the 24-hour delay and ultimately the shameful decision to switch to Madrid left a very bitter taste in the mouth.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though as Argentina’s women sealed a place at the World Cup for the first time in 12 years with an emphatic playoff victory over Panama and Lionel Scaloni earned his promotion to permanent Albiceleste coach. Back-to-back wins over Mexico with Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala finally opening their accounts (and arguably the lack of many available alternatives) saw Claudio Tapia give Scaloni until at least next year’s Copa América.
Defensa y Justicia’s Copa Sudamericana run came to an unfortunate end against eventual finalists Junior in the quarter final and in the Copa Argentina – Rosario Central booked a place in the final for the fourth time in five years to be surprisingly joined by Gimnasia after El Lobo defeated a River Plate side distracted by the Libertadores on penalties.
And if that weren’t enough of a shock, Diego Maradona’s astonishing influence on Dorados saw the Mexican side reach the Ascenso final, one game away from a return to the top flight.