Boca Juniors and Carlos Bianchi Must End Dependence on Tiring Juan Riquelme

Daniel EdwardsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

Boca Juniors' Juan Roman Riquelme leaves the field with teammates after the first half against Arsenal at an Argentine league soccer match in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Eduardo Di Baia)
Eduardo Di Baia/Associated Press

Despite the presence of legendary coach Carlos Bianchi at the helm, Boca Juniors are in crisis. The Argentine giants have not won in their last six competitive outings, and frustration was palpable at the weekend as the Xeneizes threw away a lead to go down to Belgrano 3-2. 

With just two games gone in the Torneo Final, it is too early for panic to set in. The biggest problem faced by the club, however, will be on the sidelines Thursday evening in Rafaela. 

Juan Roman Riquelme remains a talisman for the club. His arrogant ease on the ball, laser passing and inspired free kicks make him still one of the best players in the Argentine league. 

Against Rafaela, though, his talents will not be utilised. The former Barcelona and Villarreal man is recovering from a muscle tear suffered in the previous championship; incredibly, it's his fifth injury incurred in 2013 alone. 

During the previous Inicial season, the playmaker participated in just 12 of 19 matches. The paradox of his year is summed up by statistics contributed by While Riquelme was named Man of the Match three times, he was also substituted early in five encounters, meaning only seven fixtures saw the veteran play the full 90 minutes. 

His run of injuries could be put down to bad luck, but there is another explanation. At 35 years old, Riquelme's body cannot keep up with the strains of professional football for any prolonged period. Bad news for the former Argentina international, but even worse for Boca. 

In his absence, Bianchi has tried in vain to fill the creative void. Fernando Gago has been drafted in as a deep-lying playmaker, attempting to anchor the team's orthodox 4-4-2 line-up. But the midfielder has had injury problems of his own, and those around him do not give much help when it comes to going forward. 

Boca have compensated for this deficiency by throwing men into attack, which leaves them dangerously exposed to the counter. Belgrano, far from a free-scoring side, had no problem waltzing through a threadbare defence to hit three goals in the Bombonera, while Boca meandered through the middle without ideas. 

Riquelme then remains key to Boca, and other alternatives in the long term have been treated in a confusing manner. Young talent Sergio Araujo is at Tigre, while former Riquelme deputy Leandro Paredes was shipped out on loan to Italian club Chievo Verona. It may have been the right move economically, but Paredes' absence leaves no natural No. 10 when Riquelme is laid low. 

Boca's problems do not begin and end with their star. The defence fails to inspire confidence, while weaknesses in key positions mean youth prospects are drafted in without continuity or experience. But without Roman's drive and his influence on the team, the Xeneizes are a shadow of the unit which dominated South American football in the 2000s. 

If Bianchi wants to turn around the club's fortunes, the first thing he needs to do is start planning for a life without Riquelme.