There's no shortage of drama around the world as 2008 comes to a close. Liverpool and Chelsea are battling for the top of the English Premier League, Barcelona is running away in Spain and newly promoted Hoffenheim is atop the standings as the Bundesliga goes on break. But if a thrilling finish is what you're after, these are all mere side plots to what's unfolding in Argentina.
After 19 rounds of play, three clubs finished even atop the Apertura '08 standings in the closest title race in decades. Because goal differential isn't used to determine the winner, the championship will be settled in the most thrilling finish in the history of the league: an unprecedented three-way playoff between San Lorenzo, Boca Juniors and Tigre.
Starting Wednesday night, the trio will take part in a unique
On Saturday, Boca Juniors and San Lorenzo will meet in highly anticipated
Recently promoted Tigre, which already has surpassed all expectations by reaching this decisive stage of the competition, won't give up without a fight. Although it comes into the playoff as the outsider, it's more than capable of knocking off the traditional heavyweights, already having beaten both of them this season.
Here's a brief rundown of how each team comes into the playoff series, and which of the three has the best odds of clinching the Apertura title.
Of the three teams,
The club's much-needed turning point came in the crucial clash with archrival Huracán. Russo's side fell behind to an early goal and it seemed that its title aspirations had come to an abrupt end. But perhaps it was an act of God that turned things around: The match was suspended due to excessive flooding caused by torrential rainfall. When the game resumed a few days later, San Lorenzo put four goals past Huracán, and since then the squad has been as confident as ever.
With so much talent to choose from, can Russo be blamed for playing with such an attacking approach?
San Lorenzo was the least favored team in the draw. After such a complicated game against Argentinos Juniors last weekend, it's expected to play two decisive games in three days (meaning a total of three matches in less than one week). On the up side, if Russo's troops beat Tigre on Wednesday, they'll prepare for the clash with Boca knowing that a victory would hand them the title.
It's no surprise Boca's here. Argentina's most popular club is a force to be reckoned with at the local and international level. What gives it the edge over its rivals is the fact that it has become accustomed to tight spots in deciding major championships.
To top things off, this team has
For all of its attacking flair, Boca's liability is its defense. It conceded 21 goals in 19 matches this season, many of which were weak goals. Inexperienced goalkeeper
Tigre has experienced its share of ups and downs this season, but its fighting spirit and determination has proved the difference. It demonstrated this in the final three rounds of the season: Tigre came from behind to beat River Plate 3-1, turned around a two-goal deficit to overcome Rosario Central 3-2 and, in its final game of the season, resisted heavy pressure to scrape past Banfield 1-0.
What should motivate Tigre coming into the playoff is the fact that it picked up heroic away victories over Boca and San Lorenzo this season (if the playoff ends square, Tigre's head-to-head superiority will decide the championship). Cagna, who claimed four league championships during five successful years with Boca before his retirement in '05, has built a team based on work ethic and personality.
But although Tigre counts on talent like
Despite everything, the hunger to achieve glory is definitely there. Is this an advantage or a disadvantage? Even if Tigre is anxious, which is to be expected, it could be motivated by the chance to make history. Cagna and his players are well aware that if they clinch the title, they'll become legends. There's no greater motivation than that.
No matter how much we'd like Tigre to claim a historic first championship, it doesn't seem to have sufficient depth to go all the way. They may have had the upper hand over their opponents this season, but with the stakes this high, Boca or San Lorenzo will emerge on top.
San Lorenzo may be the most complete team of the three, but it lacks the necessary temperament to go all the way. Of the four Buenos Aires
For all of Boca's history, and because when it reaches its top form (even if in spurts), it's by far the most dangerous team in Argentina and the firm choice to end up with the title. The 22-time champs will have plenty of rest ahead of their clash with San Lorenzo, which should greatly benefit the squad. If Riquelme dictates the pace of the finals series, as he has done all season, the trophy will end up in Boca's cabinet.