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 mini-torneo that will decide the winner, beginning with the clash between San Lorenzo and Tigre at Vélez Sarsfield's Estadio José Amalfitani (all three matches will be played at neutral venues).
On Saturday, Boca Juniors and San Lorenzo will meet in highly anticipated clásico, and the playoff will come to a conclusion when Boca meets Tigre next Tuesday (unless San Lorenzo wins both games, in which case this third match won't be necessary). While Boca and San Lorenzo have picked up a combined 32 league championships over the years, Tigre has yet to claim its first, adding further suspense to an incredible season that will remain in the history books for years to come.
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, El Ciclón is in the best form. It won its past three games by scoring three goals in each contest, a perfect rebound from an earlier slip-up. Midway through the season, it seemed as if Miguel Ángel Russo's team would cruise easily to its second championship in four seasons -- not only was it playing highly entertaining soccer, but it was also racking up the points when it mattered most. But the pressure soon sunk in and San Lorenzo fell apart. Many feel it came as a result of Russo's failure to become the coach of the Argentine national team after being a firm candidate prior to Diego Maradona's controversial appointment.
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? Gonzalo Bergessio, Néstor Silvera and PabloBarrientos have been effective in front of goal, while Juan Manuel Torres and Santiago Solari (a superb late addition to the squad) have also been important.
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. Los Xeneizes are envied by the whole world when it comes to winning titles, and even though they've been struggling to find their top form in recent weeks, they're the overwhelming favorites to clinch the title.
Coach Carlos Ischia has incredible depth in every position, making Boca a handful for any team. At the beginning of the season, Boca lost star strikers Martín Palermo and Rodrigo Palacio to injuries, but out of nowhere emerged amazing talents such as Lucas Viatri, Pablo Mouche and Ricardo Noir. Genoa loanee Luciano Figueroa has finally adapted to his new surroundings as well, scoring two decisive goals in the 3-2 victory over Colón de Santa Fe last Sunday.
To top things off, this team has Juan Román Riquelme. The playmaker has been Boca's most influential player this season, and is likely to play a determining role in the finals series.
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 Javier García has been at fault at times, but so has his defense. Boca, which lost in a similar championship playoff to Estudiantes de La Plata two years ago, will have to work on this aspect of its game in order to overcome two teams that are known for their attacking efficiency.
Diego Cagna's side comes into the playoff as the extreme underdog. Nobody expected the team from this quaint, riverside Buenos Aires suburb to fight for the title, but it proved everybody wrong, and now has a glorious opportunity to claim its first national championship in 106 years of existence. This is a club that has bounced in and out of the Argentine first division for its entire history and only made it back to the top flight two seasons ago after a 16-year absence. Getting this far is already a huge achievement.
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 Martín Morel and Carlos Luna (who accounted for 20 of Tigre's 31 goals this season), it lacks the overall quality Boca and San Lorenzo boast. It also lacks the big-game experience its rivals have; this is a completely new experience for the club and its players, and nerves could get the better of them. Tigre doesn't have a big squad, either, which could also be a significant disadvantage with the amount of matches its players will be subjected to in just a few days.
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 clásicos it played this season, it managed only one win, clearly indicating it tends to falter on the big occasion.
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.