When it comes to South American soccer, there's arguably no rivalry more bitter than the one between Argentina's two most popular clubs: Boca Juniors and River Plate. Between them, they have won an unprecedented 56 league championships, making them by far the two most successful clubs in the country.
Boca's and River's success goes beyond the domestic scene, as both also have won their fair share of international titles, including a total of eight triumphs in South America's most important club competition, the Copa Libertadores.
Both clubs have maintained success over the years with all-star rosters, thanks to their financial superiority over the rest of the Argentine First Division. It's no different this season. Boca boasts an incredibly talented squad that includes current and former Argentine national-teamers Juan Román Riquelme, MartínPalermo, Federico Insúa and Roberto Abbondanzieri. River counters similarly with Ariel Ortega, Marcelo Gallardo and Diego Buonanotte.
But despite the quality on hand, Boca and River have seen better days, not only domestically but also internationally. While both were rather surprisingly eliminated in the first phase of the Copa Sudamericana -- South America's second-tier international tournament -- against lesser Argentine clubs last month, they have also faltered in the current Argentine Apertura Championship.
Nine rounds into the season, Boca finds itself mid-table (five points behind league leader San Lorenzo), while River's problems are far more extensive -- los Millonarios are in 16th place, only two points from the bottom.
Such poor starts have put both teams at risk of missing out on the 2010 Libertadores, something they simply can't afford. The archrivals are keenly aware that perhaps the only way to salvage something from the season is by winning the Argentine Superclásico on Sunday at River's Estadio Monumental (2 p.m. ET, Fox Sports en Español; 6 p.m. on delay on Fox Soccer Channel).
Regardless of how well or poorly either club is doing, the grudge match is always regarded as the most important game on the Argentine soccer calendar. This version won't be the exception.
Los Millonarios may be the most celebrated team in the Argentine first division, but since winning the '08 Clausura championship, they're mired in the deepest crisis in their 108-year history. The drop-off led to the resignation of former manager Diego Simeone and, more recently, Néstor Gorosito.
Far beyond coaching problems, a combination of factors are at work, including poor management, internal conflicts and, most important, the fact that the club isn't producing or attracting quality players like it used to.
Over the last decade, River has boasted a host of well-known, world-class players such as Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuaín, Esteban Cambiasso, Martín Demichelis, Pablo Aimar, Juan Pablo Sorín, LuchoGonzález, Santiago Solari, Javier Saviola and Andrés D'Alessandro. River also traditionally has attracted accomplished imports such as Marcelo Salas, Juan Pablo Ángel and Mario Yepes.
The quality of its squads was the reason for several titles over the past two decades. Since then, however, there has been a significant decline in youth production. In recent years, foreigners Alexis Sánchez and Radamel Falcao García have been River's best players. But because of the club's financial constraints, it couldn't afford to keep them.
River has lost a great deal of prestige, and the players it has recently purchased is clear evidence. Los Millonarios thought they had hit the jackpot when they beat Vélez Sársfield to the signature of Cristian Fabbiani this year, but the overweight striker has proved to be one of the worst signings in the club's history. Not only has he performed horribly on the field, but he has also been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons off it.
Instead of relying on its youth, River decided the best way to go was to sign experienced veterans who had found success at the club earlier in their careers. This paved the way for the return of club idols Ortega, Gallardo and, more recently, Matías Almeyda. But despite their past achievements, those three players don't have the legs to perform for a club of River's status, and all have been largely disappointing. While Ortega and Almeyda arrived after fighting it out in the Argentine lower leagues, Gallardo signed after a forgettable spell at D.C. United of Major League Soccer.
What was River thinking? It can't continue to rely on aging veterans if it intends to return to its glory days. Traditionally, River has been characterized for its fast, free-flowing soccer. Exciting players like D'Alessandro, Aimar and Saviola gave River a certain identity that not only was envied by Boca and its other Argentine rivals, but also by top European clubs. The volume of soccer on display was breathtaking at times, as River ripped apart its opponents with swift penetrating runs and crisp, short passing. With so many veterans on its roster today, however, that kind of soccer is a distant memory.
While River's problems are much too complicated to be resolved soon, the same can't be said about Boca's. Los Xeneizes won their third successive league match, against Tigre last Sunday, and seem to be on the right path to recovery. Ever since Alfio Basile threatened the club with his resignation after the defeat to Godoy Cruz at the Bombonera stadium last month, the six-time Libertadores champions have been in fine form.
The difference between Boca and River is the way the club is managed. Boca offloaded a few key players in the offseason to generate profit, including Rodrigo Palacio, Juan Forlín and Fabián Vargas. But instead of putting all of the cash from the sales into the bank, the club found adequate replacements. Results didn't appear immediately, but after some major setbacks, including Boca's Sudamericana elimination, the team has found its top form with excellent timing heading into the Superclásico.
One of the main reasons for Boca's revival this season has been the form of star veterans Riquelme and Palermo. After a slow start to the season, Riquelme finally has reached his peak, and the quality he's producing has benefited the entire squad. Palermo, who only last year contemplated retirement, has experienced some of the greatest moments of his career recently.
After being recalled to the Argentine national team by Diego Maradona following a 10-year absence, Palermo scored twice in a friendly match victory over Ghana and then scored Argentina's memorable injury-time winner in the crucial World Cup qualifier against Peru. Had the 35-year-old Palermo not been at his best for Boca, and had he not scored a spectacular header from 40 yards out against Vélez, perhaps he would have been overlooked.
Boca has an enormous amount of depth, and if it's able to defeat River at the Monumental as it did last year, it will revitalize its hopes of winning the championship. Such a thing seemed much too distant just a couple of weeks ago.