Boca Juniors on brink of the title
There is a certain reflective quality about Boca Juniors' 2-1 win over Godoy Cruz this past weekend, one which left them on the cusp of a 24th national championship.
Coach Julio Cesar Falcioni's first game in charge had been a 4-1 loss at home to Godoy Cruz this February, but just nine months later they had beaten the same opposition, and with this win were effectively crowned champions.
Similarly reflective is that fact that when Boca last won a title (the 2008 Apertura), archrival River Plate was in the worst crisis of its history, finishing bottom of the league. While winning it this time, River are once again at an all-time low but on this occasion,
Winning this title may make Falcioni seem like a miracle worker, but after three months his job was in real jeopardy following just a single victory in his first six games. A home defeat to lowly Olimpo -- the first in the club's history -- led Boca legend Martin Palermo to describe it as the "the worst moment in the club's history ... rock bottom."
In fact, it was the retirement of striker Palermo this summer -- to much fanfare from a Boca-centric media -- that allowed Falcioni to finally put his stamp on the side.
His plan had always been to form a solid defense behind a midfield diamond. Talisman Juan Roman Riquelme would play as the free-roaming enganche at the tip; liberated of all defensive responsibilities by an industrious and cohesive unit behind him, whilst playing incisive through balls to a dynamic front pair.
Palermo's slow, lumbering style simply didn't suit the system, but as a club legend he was virtually un-droppable. However, an under-pressure Falcioni could not risk the fans wrath by leaving him out.
Falcioni replaced him in the summer with Dario Cvitanich of Ajax, an electric forward who could provide the searching runs into the channels and stretch the play in a way that San Martín (literally Saint Martin -- emphasizing his status among fans) could no longer, being in his late 30s.
It is a phenomenon similar to the famous "Ewing Theory," where it was argued the New York Knicks played better without star man Patrick Ewing, and a theory also attributed to the Seattle Mariners' successes following the departures of Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson in consecutive years. Despite losing three certain hall-of-famers, Seattle went on to set the record for most wins in a season, and in the wake of losing one of their all-time greatest goal scorers, Boca have immediately won a national league title.
In that respect, Falcioni has been very lucky that Palermo could no longer physically continue, but his work on the defense has been admirable.
With only four goals conceded so far, Boca is on course to become the team with the best defensive season recorded since the beginning of the short tournament system. The current record for a season is six goals conceded, Boca's own record from 1991 when it actually failed to win the Clausura title.
Like all teams to play under Falcioni, Boca is the sort of team that will look to be solid and hard to beat rather than free-flowing and expressive. In addition to his recruitment of the aforementioned Cvitanich this summer, he recognized the need for an experienced leader at the heart of the defense as an essential part of his transfer dealings.
Rolando Schiavi was the target identified, and despite being a Boca hero from his previous spell with the club -- winning seven major titles -- a 38 year-old defender playing for the second worst side (Newell's Old Boys) in the league was not the choice many had hoped for, especially when rivals Independiente had snapped up Barcelona defender Gabriel Milito.
The signing was a masterstroke however, and Schiavi has been the vocal leader at the center of a defense that has been significantly improved by its ability to play on a regular basis. Three of the first choice back four have played in all 16 games this season; Schiavi, Facundo Roncaglia and Clemente Rodriguez, with the latter's excellent form seeing him recalled to Alejandro Sabella's Argentine national team.
Whilst the improvement to the defense is remarkable, it was far from an instant transition and it certainly took a while to implement Falcioni's changes on the training ground. Los Xeneizes were beaten in five of his first nine games as he attempted to teach the players a new outlook.
The presence of Leandro Somoza as a shield to the back four was always a key component and he even converted playmaker Walter Erviti into a shuttling carrilero midfielder. It took time for everyone to settle and many were perplexed by his use of one of the previous season's most impressive performers in such an unfamiliar and seemingly wasteful position.
As the system clicked though, Boca ended last season with a spate of draws that were only lightly punctuated with victories. Following his purchases in June and July, it began this season with a glut of victories, culminating this week with Boca equaling the club's second best unbeaten run in the professional era -- 26 games.
Falcioni is far from a glamorous individual and neither are his team. "He is not a manager that fascinates, but he is intelligent and a worker," said Argentine journalist Claudio Villapun. "He knew how to make friends with Riquelme at the right time, and [also] defend his beliefs [in the case of Erviti]. Boca were compact, intelligent and although they don't shine, they dominate."