Just a little over a week ago, fans of Argentina’s most successful team, Club Atletico River Plate, were ashamed when the Asocasion del Futbol Argentino’s decided to merge the top flight with the second division to form a new 38-team tournament for the 2012-2013 season.
The move would have meant that River would have returned to the first division without earning their promotion, making the club’s campaign in the Nacional B irrelevant as long as they finished in the top 16 to avoid relegation.
The new tournament would have also ensured insults and songs from fans of other Buenos Aires giants aimed at River for necessitating the change of formats. The plan would have meant that River would be the last of the “Big Five” (Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing, River, and San Lorenzo) to play at a level beneath the top division.
Now, a little over a week later, AFA President Julio Grondona has retracted his plan to implement the ludicrous new format for the top flight. to the joy of all fans of Argentine futbol, the president announced Argentina would retain the old 20-team first and second divisions.
River fans were initially relieved that their club could now earn its way back to the top flight, where it belongs. Fans then had to accept the difficult reality that actually earning a promotion to the first division will be a grueling task for the Nuñez giants.
Although Argentina’s first division has its share of teams that require long trips to get to and play on small pitches (such as Olimpo’s ground in the southern city of Bahia Blanca) the Nacional B is a whole new monster. In the 2010-2011 season, 14 of the Primera A’s teams were from the greater Buenos Aires area, while a further two more were from La Plata, only about 60 kilometers from the nation’s capital.
In the Nacional B, River will travel all over Argentina, facing six teams that the 33-time Primera A champions have never faced before, including Guillermo Brown from Puerto Madryn in Patagonia’s Chubut Province. The prospect of playing Boca Unidos from Entre Rios will be certain to lead to jeers from Boca Juniors fans, while a trip to Deportivo Merlo will see River play in a stadium with a capacity of just over 7,000.
Although it was certain that there would be new faces, River will also face plenty of clubs with a first division pedigree, including former champions Chacarita Juniors, Rosario Central, Quilmes, Huracan, and Ferro. In the Nacional B, River will face another former top-flight mainstay, Gimnasia de La Plata, winner of the Copa Centenario of 1994, and so called “yo-yo” clubs Atletico Tucuman, San Martin de Tucuman, and Gimnasia de Jujuy.
Every opponent will be trying to knock River off and prevent the 2-time Copa Libertadores winners from returning to the top flight. Unlike in the first division, River’s fans will not be able to accompany the team to away matches (due to safety reasons), making the team feel even more isolated on the road.
Long travel, small pitches, hostile crowds, and unfamiliar foes will all make River’s life in the second division uncomfortable, but in the end, the Nacional B is still football. Even if the play is more physical or less technical than Argentina’s top flight, the top two teams will still qualify for the Primera A, while the third and fourth placed sides will play in the Promocion play-off against teams from the first division. The question is, does River have enough of a team to finish in the top four in what will be an ultra-competitive division?
The first answer that comes to mind is a resounding “yes.” After all, River finished tied for fifth in aggregate standings for the 2010-2011 season, and would have qualified for the Copa Sudamericana had it managed to avoid the promocion playoff. On second thought, however, the River squad has plenty of flaws.
Two high-profile signings in Fernando Cavenaghi and Alejandro “el Chori” Dominguez should spark a lackluster offense that managed just 15 goals in 19 games during the 2011 Clausura. Both Cavenaghi and Dominguez have been crowned first division champions with River (Cavenaghi on three occasions, Dominguez twice) and are strongly committed to the club, as seen by their decisions to give up millions of dollars in order to return to the club they supported as fans.
During his time in Europe, Dominguez won two Russian Premier League titles, a UEFA Cup, and a UEFA Supercup (which happened to come against Manchester United). In 2009, the former Quilmes man was named Russian Footballer of the Year.
Cavenaghi’s time in Europe saw both highs and lows. After a less-than-stellar time in Russia with Spartak, “el Torito” moved to Bordeaux, where he scored 22 goals in 2007-2008, and 15 in 2008-2009, helping his club win Ligue 1.
Now, both are back at River, but there are serious questions about the supporting cast and coaching staff.
New coach Matias Almeyda was a brilliant player in his time. A Copa Libertadores champion with River in 1996, “el Pelado” twice represented Argentina in World Cups and had a successful spell in Europe with such clubs as Sevilla, Inter, and Lazio. After returning to River as a player after a premature retirement in 2009, Almeyda rekindled his love affair with the fans and was one of the few bright spots as the team fell from the first division for the first time in its history. Surprisingly, under-fire club President Daniel Passarella, who won three titles as a coach and seven more as a player with River, opted for Almeyda to lead “the Millionaires” back to the top flight rather than a coach with experience.
The squad of players itself is also far from below the usual River Plate standard. New signing Carlos Sanchez from Godoy Cruz was one of the best players for the Mendoza side over the past few seasons, especially in the 2011 Clausura and Copa Libertadores, where he scored the club’s first-ever goal in South America’s version of the Champions League, and while he should be a bright spot on the right flank, the team still lack depth in the rest of the midfield.
Youngster Ezequiel Cirigliano is tentatively penciled in as the team's first-choice holding midfielder, but he's currently on international duty with Argentina at the Under 20 World Cup. Cirigliano's replacement in recent friendlies has been another youth product, Santiago Gallucci Otero. Whoever wins this spot is talented, but will be inexperienced and could find it tough to battle in the middle of the park against stronger, more seasoned players.
The left side of the midfield is being fought over between new signing Martin Aguirre, a journeyman midfielder who has never settled in at one club, and Roberto Pereyra. Pereyra is also with Argentina in Colombia for the U-20 World Cup, and although he's a superb prospect and talent, the 20 year old has been very inconsistent in his short career. In 45 games, “el Tucu” has yet to score a goal, and has only handed out a few assists. Paraguay international Marcelo Estigarribia has been rumored as a possible acquisition, and although the player is interested, any move to River won't happen easily.
Defensively, Juan Pablo Carrizo is gone in goal, and will be replaced by either Daniel Vega or Leandro Chichizola, both of whom are more than capable players. Unfortunately, in front of goal there are serious questions about the central defense. The team's best defender last season, Jonatan Maidana, has been linked with a move to France, and with his departure, River would be severely weakened. Paraguayan Adalberto Roman started his career at River promisingly, but shaky performances down the stretch and an infantile handball that led to a penalty against Belgrano in the Promocion could damage his confidence.
Argentina Under-20 World Cup captain German Pezzella is an outstanding player, but rumors are circulating that a fight between his agent and Passarella could see him sent out on loan, a fate which could also await his national team partner Leandro Gonzelez Pirez, who stood in for Pezzella in the few games he played last season for River.
Up front, Dominguez will act as the playmaker and will be asked to provide the bullets for Cavenaghi. However, problems could arise with Cavenaghi’s partner. Almeyda has been experimenting with Gabriel Funes Mori, once considered a top prospect, but Mori has since fallen on hard times.
The 20-year-old has not scored a goal in a competitive match since round six of the 2010 Apertura when he nodded home Ariel Ortega’s corner against Arsenal. In total, Funes Mori has just 9 goals in 45 games for La Banda. Another possible candidate is Daniel Villalva, the youngest player to ever debut for River when he did so at just 16 years, seven months, and two days in February 2009. Unfortunately, Villalva’s career has been injury-plagued, and it's unknown how well his body will stand up to the physical Nacional B.
Clearly, River’s team is nowhere near the standard the club and its fans are used to. Only three years ago, River were celebrating the 2008 Clausura title, and had the likes of Radamel Falcao and recent Barcelona signing Alexis Sanchez among their ranks. This River team may be a step more talented than the opposition in the Nacional B, but there is a fear growing amongst the fans that there could be too much pressure heaped on Dominguez and Cavenaghi to create goals. Unless more reinforcements are brought in, it's difficult to say where else the goals will come from.
River Plate is about to embark on arguably its most difficult campaign in history. The most important thing the team needs to do to ensure success will be to start strong. A few losses or draws to start the campaign will heap up the pressure on Passarella, Almeyda, and the players, while River fans will begin to fear the only thing more unthinkable than River playing in the Nacional B: a second season outside of the Primera.