Twelve matches without a victory is a tough spell for any team. But for Argentine powerhouse River Plate, one of the world's most storied and successful clubs, it's nothing less than a catastrophe.
Los Millonarios find themselves at the bottom of the 20-team Argentine First Division with just one victory. On top of that, they're on the verge of elimination from the Copa Sudamericana, making it the worst campaign the club has experienced in its 107 years of existence.
Team morale is awful, and to make matters worse, coach Diego Simeone, who only five months ago guided River Plate to the Clausura Championship, affirmed that he will abandon his post if his team fails to advance to the semifinals of the Copa Sudamericana after the return leg of its clash with Chivas de Guadalajara in Mexico on Thursday (River is down 2-1 after the first-leg result in Buenos Aires).
"We can't find many explanations; there are lots of reasons behind it but no single one," River star striker Radamel Falcao García told me from his hotel room in Guadalajara on Tuesday night. "We haven't done things well, and we know this. But we are working hard to get things together again."
"We are very low on the table and it hurts, it affects our self pride," added the 22-year-old Colombian international. "But what motivates us is that we want to get out of the position where we find ourselves. River isn't used to being in such a bad situation; we haven't experienced anything quite like it before. And we want to get out as soon as possible."
River is in the middle of a massive crisis that seems to have no end. The club has struggled to find any kind of form this season, and to top things off, last month it fell to a frustrating home defeat to archrivals Boca Juniors in the Argentine Superclásico at its very own Estadio Monumental de Nuñez.
"It was a hard defeat to take," said Falcao, who despite his impressive scoring record against Boca, couldn't make an impact on the match. "Because Boca is a rival, we always want to beat and they are the main competition we have. It is the match we always want to win, and unfortunately we lost. And the players really felt the defeat,"
The obvious reason for River's dramatic turnaround was the exodus of several key players after last season's impressive title run. Bad management led to the departures of talented attackers Alexis Sánchez, Sebastián Abreu (who since returned to the club but is only eligible to play in the Sudamericana), and goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo. Meanwhile, inspirational midfielder ArielOrtega was controversially loaned out to a second-division club per the demand of Simeone, who wanted him to cure his worsening alcohol addiction.
"They are fundamental players who left, and last season they collaborated in helping us win the title," said Falcao. "We feel their absences. And the team hasn't managed to replace them because they were the backbone of the team."
Falcao, who was River's top scorer last season with 11 goals, has clearly been affected by the losses, having managed to find the back of the net only twice this season. Since joining River Plate as a 14-year-old (he debuted for the River first team in '05) Falcao has scored goals on a regular basis. He says River's dramatic dip in form is the main reason for his lack of goals this season.
"It's harder to score without a good team effort, but I'm hopeful of getting back to scoring ways in order to help the team," he explained. "But it doesn't matter who scores -- during this complicated moment we are all hoping to help, we have this mentality. But if I score, it's even better."
"El Tigre" must find his scoring touch immediately -- in order to reach the semifinals of the Copa Sudamericana, River has to score at least two goals at the Estadio Jalisco against Chivas. Simeone's side has to be highly efficient in front of goal. In Argentina, River played its best soccer of the season. But although it completely dominated its opponents, it failed to capitalize on its many scoring opportunities and ended up losing the match.
"We played very well against Chivas," Falcao said. "We had the capacity to set the rhythm of the match. We always tried to find the back of the net, but we couldn't manage this, and Chivas scored quickly and made it very hard for us to get back into the game."
But on Thursday, Falcao said, "We hope to play with the same attitude and to be more lethal when presented with opportunities in front of goal."
River's only possibility of salvaging something from the season lies with the Sudamericana, a competition in which it reached the finals back in '03 when it lost to Cienciano of Peru. In last weekend's league match with Lanús, Simeone reserved his first-choice team in order to enter the clash with Chivas in the best possible condition. If River manages to win the tournament, its season could end on a high note.
"It is one of our season objectives, and it will be very nice to win it," Falcao said. "But our position on the [league] table isn't good, and we aren't happy with that and we will try to get out of the hole and try to finish the season as high as possible on the table, and to win the Copa Sudamericana."
If River fails to win the tournament, Simeone will be on his way out and the coach will be followed by several others. With the demand for high-quality South American strikers in Europe, Falcao, who rejected a lucrative move to Italian giants AC Milan last year, would surely part ways with River.
"I don't know, hopefully the coach and the players continue," he said. "Luck just hasn't gone our way. We have played poorly, but it isn't that we aren't doing well because the team doesn't want to or because we don't have the right attitude. We hope we can all continue and find a way to reverse the situation."
The fact that the Buenos Aires club has produced so many talented players over the years increases Falcao's chances of moving to one of Europe's top clubs, especially if River continues with its disastrous form. In recent months, Falcao has attracted the attention of heavyweights Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Milan, a team that won't give up in its attempts to lure the Colombian to the San Siro.
Falcao has played down rumors suggesting that he could be on his way out; however, he admits that he has always dreamt of playing for one of the above clubs, and that one of his career objectives is to succeed in the elite leagues of European soccer.
Although he enjoys watching English soccer, Falcao characterizes himself as a technical player, and for that reason he feels he is better suited for the style of soccer exhibited in Spain's La Liga. He believes the transition from Argentine to Spanish soccer would be a smooth one, particularly if he joins Spanish champions Real Madrid, one of the frontrunners to secure his signature.
The future of the much sought after striker clearly lies in Europe, but although he is excited about the possibility of moving abroad, he says that right now he's only thinking about River and he's looking forward to winning more titles with the club.
"Sometimes you can't say no because they are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities," he said. "But at this moment, I'm only thinking about River, and to win more titles with the club."