Big Teams Reload for Argentina Apertura

In the last eight tournaments, the Argentina Primera Division has yielded eight different champions. There is perhaps no league in the world that has produced such a level of unpredictability and excitement, especially in an era when only two or three sides have a realistic chance of winning in the main leagues in Europe.

In recent times, Argentina has seen Banfield claim its first title in 113 years of existence in 2009, while southern rivals Lanus had won their first championship just two years before. We have seen teams like Tigre win promotion before fighting for the title in their first season back in the Primera, falling just four points short of Lanus during the 2007 Apertura. Imagine Newcastle qualifying for the Champions League like this. How unlikely.

In Argentina, each team's fan base has a legitimate reason to be excited and hopeful for every tournament, something that cannot be said in Europe, where only a few clubs have a chance to win the league title. Another aspect of Argentine Football that is not common across the pond is that the big clubs have all been struggling. During the 2009 Copa Libertadores, not one of Argentina's traditional "Five Big Clubs" (Boca Juniors, River Plate, Independiente, Racing, and San Lorenzo) were present for the first time in history.

Poor financial situations and even worse administrative decisions led to the demises of Argentina's traditional powers, but this season there is a feeling that the giants of the South American game should be stronger.

River Plate was run for years by Jose Maria Aguilar, who robbed the club of its riches and sold players such as Gonzalo Higuain to Europe before they had even made a name for themselves at home. With the effects of the institutional crisis still very much a factor, new president and 1978 World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella has tried to rebuild the club on the principles of playing good football and bringing through the prestigious youth products that have been the building blocks of the Argentina National Team for decades.

Coach Angel Cappa has been charged with the task of bringing River Plate back to glory with the help of a number of high profile reinforcements brought in by Passarella since the World Cup ended. Goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who fell out of favor at Lazio, was brought back to Nunez to solidify the goalkeeping position that has been a trouble area since he departed for Europe.

Former Estudiantes striker Mariano Pavone was also brought back from Europe. Pavone becomes a River player although he already has a special place in the hearts of the fans after scoring the winning goal against Boca Juniors to claim the 2006 Aperatura in a dramatic one game play-off.

Although new signings will strengthen the team, the basis of River Plate will always be youth. The likes of Rogelio Funes Mori, Facundo Affrancino, Manuel Lanzini and Robertro Pereyra will all have important roles to play as River looks to avoid relegation, but also win the title in the same year. New faces certainly have a role to play, but historic icons Ariel Ortega and Matias Almeyda will still hold down places in the starting line-up and will be the references for Cappa and their younger teammates.

River's arch rival Boca Juniors have also made dramatic strides to improve a team that finished 16th last tournament and had the worst defensive record in the league. New manager Claudio Borghi, who led Argentinos Juniors to the title just a few months ago, will instill a new formation with a three man backline, a system completely unknown in La Boca. Like Cappa at River, Borghi will be able to call on a number of new signings, including goalkeeper Cristian Luchetti and defenders Cristian Cellay and Matias Caruzzo.

It has been confirmed the Borghi has secured the signature of Clemente Rodriguez to occupy one of the wingback positions. Rodriguez has three times won the Copa Libertadores with Boca and was recently involved in Argentina's run to the World Cup quarterfinals. He returns to the club after spells with Spartak Moscow, Espanyol and, most recently, Estudiantes. Borghi and club president Jorge Ameal have also ensured that club idols Martin Palermo and Juan Roman Riquelme will continue with the club, although Riquelme will not be available at the outset of the tournament as he recovers from surgery.

To the south of Buenos Aires in the suburb of Avellaneda, Racing Club will be looking to give its long suffering fan base a run at glory. Signings of Colombia international Gioavanni Moreno and former Huracan midfielder Patricio Toranzo are set to improve the club drastically. Racing manager Miguel Angel Russo also has a number of talented players signed last season who will hopefully settle into the club during their second tournament such as Gabriel Hauche, Cluadio Bieler, and former Argentina captain Roberto Ayala.

In Boedo, San Lorenzo has also boosted its squad at the top with new manager Ramon Diaz. The architect of River Plate's dynasty during the mid-1990's, Diaz also led San Lorenzo to the Claurura title in 2007 and will look to not only take El Ciclon to glory, but to bolster his own credentials to be named Argentina manager. The Cuervos may not have had as active a transfer window as some of the other big clubs, but the addition of former Bordeaux defender Diego Placente and Uruguayan striker Sebastian Balsas will strengthen the team.

Independiente, the club that has won the Copa Libertadores more times than any other, has perhaps taken a step back from the team the led the Clausura for the majority of the tournament before falling off at the end. Striker Diario Gandin has left for Mexico and Leonel Nunez has departed for Turkey, leaving Andres Silvera to shoulder much of the goalscoring load. Defensively, El Rojo should be strong with goalkeeper Adrian Gabbarini anchoring the side and captain Carlos Matheu returning from a long term injury that kept him out of the Clausura.

In addition to the traditional big clubs, Estudiantes de La Plata and Velez Sarsfield figure to be major contenders once again. Estudiantes suffered a collapse at the end of the Clausura before a meltdown against Inter of Brazil saw them crash out of the Copa Libertadores at the quarterfinal stage, meaning Alejandro Sabella's men will be desperate to rebound.

Unfortunately, Estudiantes were unable to keep hold of many of their top players, with striker Mauro Boselli and rightback Marcos Angeleri heading to England, midfielder Jose Sosa returning to Bayern Munich after his loan spell ended, and wingback Clemente Rodriguez departed to join Boca. Captain Juan Sebastian Veron will still be the main man in the capital of the Buenos Aires province, but the question remains if the supporting cast will be up to the challenge.

Velez has one of the strongest sides on paper. Led by playmaker Maxi Moralez and Uruguayan strikers Santiago Silva and Rodrigo Lopez, El Fortin looks to be one of the sides most likely to bring home the title.

Exclusively by John Tilghman

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