River Plate face play-off anxiety
The playing days of lumbering Argentine striker Martin Palermo were one prolonged battle of a man to overcome his own limitations. Sensing and identifying with the essential nobility of the struggle, the fans of Boca Juniors took him to their hearts.
Palermo's career ended on Saturday on a note of appropriate drama. His last touch as a professional, deep into stoppage time, was a nod down which set up team-mate Christian Cellay to score Boca's equaliser against Gimnasia of La Plata.
To add spice to the occasion, it was an important goal - and not just because Palermo is from La Plata, a fan and an ex-player of Estudiantes, Gimnasia's local rivals.
In a frantic last day of the league season, a win for Gimnasia would mean they would not be one of the two teams to be automatically relegated. Instead they would go into a play-off against the team finishing third in the Second Division - but that late Boca goal worsened their position.
Now they must meet fellow strugglers Huracan, with the losers going down, and the winners earning a chance to save themselves in a play-off against San Martin of San Juan.
Martin Palermo (front) was hugely popular among Boca Juniors supporters - photo: AP
However, it is the other play-off tie which will attract much more attention, because it features River Plate, one of the giants of Argentine football and the team with most league titles to their credit.
This is not supposed to happen. The way that relegation works in Argentina is designed to save the big clubs from a temporary slump. Two short, separate championships are played per year. Relegation is worked out on an average of points accumulated over three years, or six championships.
For a massive club like River Plate, flirting with relegation requires a prolonged period of incompetence - and that is what has happened.
River spent years in administrative chaos, with rumours that the organised gangs of thugs that blight Argentine football were even getting a cut of transfer fees.
Former great Daniel Passarella was elected club president on a clean-up ticket, but he has found that it is not easy to turn a juggernaut around. Conciliating the needs of the long-term and the short-term is never easy in football, especially at a big club in crisis. There is always too much temptation to hit the panic button.
Passarella first went with Angel Cappa as his coach, a fan of the flowing, attacking football that is integral to the club's identity. Results were not encouraging, and so he left and the club took an ill-judged lurch in the opposite direction by replacing him with. River's former midfielder JJ Lopez, who, panic stricken, has been sending out desperately defensive sides - three centre backs, two defensive midfielders, wing backs with little attacking projection.
Responsibility has been unfairly heaped on Eric Lamela, a hugely promising 19-year-old attacking midfielder, who combines well but has had no one to combine with. In 19 games, River have managed just 15 goals.
Such a negative strategy, in addition to being at odds with the history of the club, made no sense whatsoever. A win and a defeat are worth more than two draws, but River ended the season without a win in their last seven games.
For this reason their play-off (away on Wednesday, home on Sunday) against Belgrano of Cordoba is no formality.
Relegation for River Plate would be a huge shock for Argentine football followers - photo: Getty
Belgrano are on a roll, having shrugged off a slow start to shoot up the Second Division table and it promises to be a tense, tight clash, and comes at a moment when the meeting of these teams also takes on symbolic proportions.
Argentine football is historically highly centralised. The title has almost never left Buenos Aires. Estudiantes have established themselves as a force, but La Plata is only an hour's drive from the capital. Elsewhere, there have been a handful of wins each for the Rosario pair, Central and Newells Old Boys, but that is it.
Belgrano's city, Cordoba, is the second biggest in Argentina, but has been astonishingly under-represented in terms of top level footballing success and efforts are being made to change this.
Next month Argentina stages the Copa America, a tournament which is making a conscious attempt to decentralise the game, and only the final will be in Buenos Aires. La Plata will be staging games, taking advantage of a modern stadium in the city, but all the rest is in the provinces.
Cordoba is one of the venues. Another is Santa Fe - a club from the city, Union, won one of the automatic promotion places to the First Division, and the other went to nearby Atletico Rafaela.
Another venue is San Juan, close to the border with Chile, the only host city that has built a new stadium especially for the Copa. As we have seen, the city's representative San Martin have made it through to the play-offs, where they will face the winner of the Gimnasia-Huracan match.
Near San Juan is another Copa venue, Mendoza. Towards the end of last year I wrote a piece abut a club from the city, Godoy Cruz, qualifying for the first time for the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League. Some fears were expressed that they would soon slip back - but although they could not qualify for the knock out phase of the Libertadores, they showed good domestic form, challenging for the title for a while before finishing third.
Their strong showings now give them a real chance to establish themselves on a more permanent basis. Godoy Cruz have so many points on the board that they can plan safe in the knowledge that this time next year they will not be caught up in the relegation dogfight.
There is a chance, then, that the map of Argentine football is going through a significant modification. Buenos Aires will continue to hold sway - the well-run Velez Sarsfield club underlined the point by winning the title in style - but the capital is not going to have everything its own way.
Even Boca Juniors might have to look over their shoulder. A very poor next 12 months would drop them in the same quicksand that River Plate have been wading through. In a year's time Boca may even be grateful for that point they snatched right at the end against to Gimnasia with the aid of Martin Palermo's last touch.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I have heard stories of Liverpool being linked with a £9m move for Lucas Moura. From what I have heard Sao Paulo rate him at £70m. I saw him for a bit against Scotland and he was pretty impressive, I was just wondering how good he is.
A) As you mentioned, his buy out clause is huge, so Liverpool or anyone else will have to shell out much more than £9m to land him - and I would probably go on the side of caution and think that a big money move would be premature.
He is talented and making progress. He's a wonderfully incisive dribbler and his finishing is improving, including snap shots from range, but it is still early days.
There will be a chance to see him next month in the Copa America. I'm in a tiny minority, but I'm not sure about his selection - I wonder if it might have been better for him to go to the World Youth Cup, which kicks off in Colombia at the end of July. With no Neymar in that side, Lucas would be the leader of the attack and would be obliged to develop his collective play.