Libertadores Is Last Chance for Glory for Bianchi and Riquelme's Faltering Boca
It was supposed to be the dream partnership: the genius coach and virtuoso playmaker reunited to lead Boca Juniors to glory. The dream, however, has within the space of just a few short months threatened to turn into a nightmare, as the Xeneize, led by Carlos Bianchi and Juan Roman Riquelme, look set to end the first half of 2013 in ignominy.
Riquelme had walked out on the Argentine giants just under 12 months ago, following a painful final defeat to Corinthians, which ended Boca's dreams of lifting the Copa Libertadores for a seventh time.
There were rumours of conflicts with then-coach Julio Cesar Falcioni and club president Daniel Angelici, and the No. 10 spent six months away from football, linked with sides from both Argentina and elsewhere, ultimately refusing to return to the game.
It was the return of Bianchi that ultimately convinced Riquelme to come back to Boca.
The bespectacled coach is a legend around the Bombonera thanks to his three previous stints as coach of the side, which coincided with unparalleled glory. Under "El Virrey" (The viceroy), Boca lifted South America's premier club tournament three times in four years at the turn of the 21st century, as well as four national championships and two victories in the Intercontinental Cup.
The reunion of the two was meant to be the catalyst for a new golden age in the team; but so far, results have not gone their way.
Boca enter Wednesday's last-16 match against Corinthians, the Argentines' vanquishers in the final, in a less-than-ideal state. Defeat against Estudiantes marked the 10th game without victory for the club, equaling its worst run in history and consigning them to a lowly 18th in the Primera Division table.
Success in the Libertadores, which for fans of the Xeneize means semifinals or better, is the only thing that can rescue the flagging partnership and turn around the season for both Bianchi and Riquelme.
The 34-year-old has been far from his best in 2013, struggling with fitness and form, but he is hardly to blame for Boca's current woes.
The defence, which in a Bianchi side is assumed to be a paragon of solidity and security, has been in shambles, with no man stepping up to fill the void left by veteran centre-back Rolando Schiavi. The statistics tell the story; 17 goals have been conceded in 11 Primera games so far and a further seven during the group stage of the Libertadores have contributed to the team's spectacular fall from grace.
With the famous Superclasico against River Plate on Sunday and the return match against the Brazilians scheduled for May 15, Wednesday's match in the Bombonera represents the start of two vital weeks in Boca's season that could well define Bianchi's future at the club.
Defeat against the club's bitter Argentine rivals and an early exit from the Copa would mean unmitigated failure for the coach and place his continuity under serious question.
Riquelme for one was bullish in the buildup against Corinthians, stating that his team start as favourites, but he must know that he and his coach will be playing for their lives.
Daniel is a football journalist based in Buenos Aires, who specialises in covering the South American game. You can follow him on twitter at @DanEdwardsGoal
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