Argentine title race is a sprint, relegation a marathon
In the rollercoaster of tournament football it took Russia little more than a week to move from possible winners to definite failures at Euro 2012. Spare a thought, then, for Argentine club Tigre who could move to either extreme in the space of 90 minutes - or even be both at the same time.
Next week is the last round of the conventional season in Argentina and Tigre have a good chance of winning the title for the first time in the club's long history. But they are also in danger of being relegated to the second division.
This apparent absurdity is possible because radically different time frames are used at either end of the table. Winning the title is a sprint. The campaign is just 19 games long with all the teams facing each other once, meaning two separate championships can be played each year.
Relegation, meanwhile, is a marathon. It is worked out on an average of points accumulated over the course of six championships or three years (teams have their points divided by the number of games played - 114 for those who have spent the last three years in the first division, 76 for those present in the last two and 38 for the clubs promoted a year ago).
Criticisms of such a format are easily made. It encourages a short-term mentality in the winning of the title and requires the services of a mathematician to work out the points average.
On the plus side, a short competition often keeps the title race alive until the end. And it also means that there is no such thing as a meaningless game. When two mid-table sides meet at the end of the season, the points won and lost could make all the difference in the relegation battle two years later.
Certainly Tigre have had every reason to regret their awful form in the two championships played in the 2009-10 season. The previous year, they were only a goal away from winning the title. Then, as is so often the nature of things in South America, that team was broken up and in the next 38 matches they managed a disastrous total of just 32 points.
Tigre beat Argentine giants Boca Juniors 2-1 back in April. Photo: Getty
Along with a par-for-the-course total of 50 points from 2010-11, it meant that when they kicked off last August they needed to perform well above average just to keep their head above water.
In the first championship of 2011-12, Tigre finished seventh and in the second, with one game to go, they are joint top of the table.
This is all very well but Tigre have made it clear that winning the title is not priority number one. More important is ensuring first division survival. In the relegation index their good run of form has hauled them up to five off the bottom with the last two go down automatically and the next two playing off against the sides finishing third and fourth in the second division.
It is still possible, then, that Tigre can win the first division title and end up in the second division.
Whatever happens, this has been a memorable first season in the coaching career of Rodolfo Arruabarrena. Best known as left-back for Boca Juniors and Villareal, Arruabarrena was part of the Tigre team that nearly won the title in 2008. Now he is in charge of many of his former team-mates, some of whom have returned to the club after spells away.
Tigre are an old team with a young coach - Arruabarrena is just 36. But his work this year shows real promise. In particular his use of a back three has allowed him to pick two central midfielders plus the more creative Diego Morales who, given such a platform, has enjoyed a fine campaign.
Arruabarrena is one to watch for the long haul. In the short term, though, his focus will surely be restricted to Sunday when, in Tigre's bizarre fight on two fronts, he could be forgiven for having a calculator in one hand and the phone number of the cardiologist in the other.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
After their 1-0 defeat at home in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final, what do you think of Santos's chances in the second leg against Corinthians? I watched the highlights and they seemed to be the better team and have more chances than Corinthians. Do you think they can win and go on and retain the trophy? Also, what do you think of their league chances as they haven't had the greatest of starts? Sean Dineen
They are up against it. Highlights may have made their first-leg display look better than it was. They were not good at all. Once again I was baffled by their decision to use their tight Vila Belmiro stadium rather than take the game to Morumbi, where the bigger pitch would have favoured their game.
Corinthians have conceded two goals in 11 games this season and have yet to concede at home, a defensive record which speaks for itself. They are the favourites. In terms of the league, Santos have been fielding reserve sides so far. There's plenty of time to catch up, but they will suffer from call-ups to the Olympics.
I can't help but wonder how Argentina, which has traditionally produced some of the world's best defenders - Zanetti, Ayala, Ruggeri, Samuel, Passarella, Heinze, etc - has found itself with such a shortage of new talent in the last few years - especially when contrasted to their current attacking riches. What do you put this lack of defensive quality down to and how can Argentina buck this trend? Atour Tuma
It is striking though I would never include Heinze in any list of greats. National team coach Alejandro Sabella has acknowledged that there are problems in both positions. Why? Maybe it is just cyclical. Maybe some careers have come unstuck because of premature moves to Europe - I had very high hopes of Juan Forlin, for example, but haven't really followed his progress since the move to Espanol.
Maybe - and this is the most worrying explanation - Argentina are witnessing a decline in quality in youth production in all positions. Certainly the last couple of Under-20 sides have been very disappointing and youth development specialists in the country have been warning of declining standards.
Perhaps also the change in the interpretation of the rules has been a factor. Passarella was such a good player he could surely have adapted to today's stricter refereeing. But I'm not 100% sure the same applies to Ruggeri.
Specifically in terms of full-backs, I'm optimistic about Juan Sanchez Mino of Boca on the left. He's a midfielder really, but he's been playing a bit at left back and I think that before long he could do a job there for the national team. He's neat in everything he does, and has such a great engine.