Bottoms up in Argentina
Finally, some positive news from Argentina. It seems like all we hear from the most competitive league in Latin America is reports of violence and corruption.
Thankfully, it's been mostly about the soccer during the 2007 Apertura championship, one of the most wide-open affairs in years. Some of the smallest clubs in the first division have realistic chances of winning the title and breaking through the traditional five-team monopoly.
With just five rounds to play, the table is topped by surprising Lanús, a club that has yet to win a championship or major title in 92 years of existence. On its heels are Independiente and newly promoted Tigre, tied for second. Boca Juniors have a tenuous grip on third place, but all four teams are only separated by three points. Meanwhile, a number of other teams still have an outside chance.
Lanús is only two points ahead of Independiente, and the club from southern Buenos Aires knows it has a commanding position and the necessary firepower to win its first-ever league championship.
Perhaps even more surprising than Lanús' rise is Tigre, which returned to the top flight this season after an absence of 27 years. The suburban Buenos Aires club has demonstrated that a never-say-die attitude goes a long way in the Argentine first division -- witness its emphatic 4-1 victory over River Plate earlier this season. But Tigre's title run in is rather daunting, particularly because it faces Boca Juniors in the final weekend of the season.
That match could decide the title, as Boca will surely be there fighting right until the end even though it's having a rather disappointing season, by its own high standards. An unexpected 1-1 draw against Estudiantes de La Plata at the Bombonera last weekend seriously dented Boca's chances of winning its third championship in five seasons.
Boca has demonstrated it can still play effective soccer, even though the departure of
In stark contrast, River started off the season on the wrong foot, but has picked up in recent weeks. Now the team has an outside chance of fighting for the title.
Still, from the clubs in contention, the eventual champion will most likely be
That particular team featured an enormous amount of talent, such as
Independiente couldn't recover, and it wasn't able to field a contending team for the next few years. After an embarrassing 11th-place finish in last season's Clausura Championship, the club changed its ways and, rather than offloading its most talented players for large sums of money, kept them for another season.
This approach is the main reason for the team's sudden revival, and is in large part thanks to the form of star striker
But even though Denis got on the score sheet against San Lorenzo in Avellaneda last Sunday, it wasn't enough. His side lost 2-1 to the reigning champions and missed a great opportunity to seize first place.
Even so, it's a surprising race to the finish and could signal a shift in the balance of power in Argentina. The game is traditionally dominated by the Big Five (Boca, River, San Lorenzo, Independiente and Racing), but this season, less illustrious clubs are making a stand. The fact that the likes of Lanús and Tigre are among the top three at such a decisive stage of the championship is a true reflection of how even the level of competition has recently become.