Boca favorite for Clausura title

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Etymologically speaking, both Argentina and the Rio de la Plata itself derive their names from the word for silver. In the world of South American soccer, the silver medal of second place is becoming something of an uncomfortable reality in Argentina as its league begins to fall further behind neighboring Brazil's.

Having only had one team in the last eight of 2011's Copa Libertadores -- South America's premier continental competition -- and two in its little brother, the Copa Sudamericana, criticism of the league was only compounded by an Apertura of disappointing quality.

Boca Juniors ran away with the title in the first of 2011/12's short tournaments, but didn't need to elevate themselves too far above the ordinary to triumph by an astonishing 12 points in a season of just 19 games.

Having been once more stripped of its brightest young stars, the league is currently suffering a lull as the next generation of wonderkids are yet to swagger into view, while arguably the most talented young player in the country -- Lucas Ocampos -- is plying his trade in the second tier with River Plate. This has contributed to the general malaise that is hanging over the league, but everybody is aware that domestic football is only another Nicolas Gaitán or Erik Lamela away from sparking back to life.

Franco Vazquez is the latest young talent to depart for Europe -- in the shape of Serie A side Palermo -- in what has otherwise been a very quiet transfer window in Argentine soccer. Canchallena, the sports section of daily newspaper La Nación, called it "too much calm," as it gasped with a thirst for new players to light up the league after the Apertura's tame efforts.

The two highest profile arrivals are both players returning to the Argentine league after unsuccessful spells in Italy. Unusually, neither are eligible to feature in the local league due to FIFA rules regarding the amount of clubs anyone can represent in a season; Santiago Silva (Boca Juniors) and Lucas Pratto (Velez Sarsfield) will therefore only take part in their clubs' Libertadores campaigns.

Paradoxically, this enforced squad rotation may prove very useful given the significant extra workload that competing in South America's Champions League equivalent entails. With distances larger than flying from Chicago, Illinois, to London, England, and just days before being back on domestic duty at the weekend, it tests the deepest of squads, but Silva and Pratto will always be fresh for their respective teams.

Boca Juniors -- with the further signing of Pablo Ledesma -- now have plenty of options and will be in a very strong position to fight on both fronts and attempt to retain its national title, aided by the continued absence of archrivals River Plate. Julio Cesar Falcioni's defensive ethos brought the club success but if results begin to suffer then the crowd could quickly lose patience with his pragmatic approach. Nonetheless, Boca boasts the most talented player in the league -- former Barcelona playmaker Juan Román Riquelme -- and will be there or thereabouts come June.

Its biggest challengers in the championship race should come from a resurgent Estudiantes side -- who has bizarrely re-signed so many old players that it could field 10 of the 11 players that won them the 2009 Libertadores -- as well as Racing Club and Independiente, based in nearby Avellaneda.

Racing lost manager Diego Simeone to Atletico Madrid but the return of Alfio Basile should see them shrug off the defensive shackles that prevented the team from ever truly threatening Boca's superiority in the last campaign. The signing of striker Federico Santander is Racing's only significant addition but he represents a sizable improvement on the outgoing Pablo Lugüercio. Racing will also have the advantage over many of its potential adversaries for the Clausura title as it failed to qualify for the Copa Libertadores, leaving it with far fewer fixtures to negotiate.

Independiente has had a poor 12 months domestically but will also benefit from not being involved in continental competition. A steady improvement under new manager Ramón Diaz should continue, and it has signed an excellent forward in Ernesto Farias. Other contenders for Argentina's top prize should be Velez Sarsfield, Lanús and Godoy Cruz but their small squads will struggle to deal with the dual challenges presented by the simultaneity of the Libertadores and Clausura.

At the other end of the table, things are a bit more complicated.

Due to Argentina's confusing relegation system -- based on an average of points amassed over the past three seasons -- clubs are more punished for being poor over long periods than short-term blips. The results of this are that clubs like River Plate, who less than 12 months ago finished in a league position that would have qualified them for the Copa Sudamericana, can go down whereas the whipping boys of the most recent campaign, Banfield, won't be relegated this June due to an excellent 2009/10 season that included an Apertura title win.

Tigre and Olimpo are two of the division's smaller clubs, and both look frankly doomed to a direct return to the Primera 'B.' Who will occupy the two relegation playoff places is less certain, but among those in contention is San Lorenzo, one of the country's five grandes. Having brought in a number of new faces, it now requires at least a top-half finish to try to avoid a promoción playoff, but new manager Leonardo Madelón doesn't have a track record to suggest he will guide them to safety.

All Boys, Unión de Santa Fe, and Arsenal de Sarandí are all clubs who will be fighting for their lives along with Madelón's side, as well as Newell's Old Boys, who face almost certain relegation in 2012/13 even if it does manage to survive this campaign.

What this system does mean is that no game is ever meaningless, and for the cluster of sides destined to finish in midtable, it gives them an incentive to never play at anything less than 100 percent. Some of these sides will be looking to break away from this anonymity, with Colón and Atletico Rafaela the most likely surprise packages while San Martín, Belgrano and Godoy Cruz may be forced to be content with stability.

The unpredictability of the Argentine league, twinned with a gaggle of top clubs fighting it out on the continental stage, means that it is harder than ever to pick a winner for the 2012 Clausura; for the sake of the supporters and the health of the Argentine soccer though, the quality needs to return to the gold standard of old.

Ed Malyon is a freelance sports and betting writer who specializes in South American soccer on his Valderramarma blog.