League action returns to Argentina this weekend as the 2008 Apertura gets under way. And while River Plate will be bidding to defend their domestic title, recent history suggests that will be no easy task. The last four championships have been won by four different teams, all of which points to another wide-open race, as FIFA.com explains.
River's decision to sell troubled idol Ariel Ortega following his personal problems marked the culmination of a far from smooth build-up for the holders. Diego Simeone's side are nothing if not resilient, however, and have built a reputation for overcoming adversity off the pitch by churning out results on it. A further case in point is the departure of goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, one of the key men in their push to the Clausura title. While a serious blow, his replacement Juan Marcelo Ojeda has done everything that has been asked of him so far.
Runners-up last time out, Boca Juniors remain firm title aspirants. Having retained all their leading personnel, the Xeneizes can count on the renowned playmaking talents of Juan Roman Riquelme and the feared strike partnership formed by Rodrigo Palacio and Martin Palermo.
As they continue to lament the title that got away, Estudiantes are sure to be in contention yet again. Still led by Juan Sebastian Veron, the men from La Plata have managed to keep their squad together, while bringing in the striking power of Mauro Bosselli, Gaston Fernandez and the ageless Jose Luis Calderon.
San Lorenzo, Independiente, Lanus and Velez Sarsfield should all be in with a chance of success as well. The mastermind behind Boca's Copa Libertadores win in 2007, Miguel Russo has taken over from Ramon Diaz on the Ciclón bench, and although hampered by the departure of Andres D'Alessandro and Diego Placente, he should have plenty of quality to work with.
The same applies to Claudio Borghi's Independiente, who will no doubt miss German Denis's goals but at least managed to hang on to the incisive Daniel Montenegro. Guiding Lanus as they kick off the new season will be the 27-year-old Luis Zubeldia, the youngest coach in the history of Argentinian football. A former assistant to his predecessor Ramon Cabrero, Zubeldia has a tough outfit at his disposal and his immediate task will be to erase memories of a disappointingly weak defence of their 2007 Apertura title.
Finally, Hugo Tocalli's Velez have added some established names to a solid-looking squad as they seek to build on last term's promising performances.
The rest of the field
After safely negotiating the relegation play-offs to maintain their top-flight status, Racing Club can expect another nervy season. Given their poor points average, the threat of relegation still looms large, and with the club beset by ongoing internal problems, the support of the fans will once again play a vital part in motivating Juan Manuel Llop's men.
The two Gimnasias find themselves in fairly similar position, with both La Plata and Jujuy needing to amass a significant amount of points to stave off the drop, a fate that could well befall new boys San Martin (Tucuman Province) and Godoy Cruz (Mendoza Province) if they fail to make decent starts.
Aside from Ortega's switch to second division side Independiente Rivadavia, the major close-season transfer headlines have been made by the strikers. Estudiantes paid a considerable sum to Boca for the services of the promising Mauro Boselli, who decided to emerge from Palermo's considerable shadow to try his luck with the club where El Loco started out. Not content with that, El Pincha have also drafted in the much-travelled goalscorer Gaston La Gata Fernandez, who recently helped San Lorenzo to the title.
For their part River signed the opportunistic Paraguayan Santiago Salcedo, who scored 12 times for Newell's Old Boys last term, while Independiente brought Leonel Nunez back home from Greek champions Olimpiakos. Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata have called on ex-Udinese and Napoli man Roberto Sosa to help them with their relegation battle, while Velez have added the Uruguayan Hernan Rodrigo Lopez to their squad.
Players to watch
While established stars such as Riquelme, Palermo, Veron and Montenegro are all expected to shine, River playmaker Diego Buenanotte and Boca full-back Luciano Monzon, two of the revelations of the 2008 Clausura season, will be hoping to maintain their upward curve. After a recent dip, Lanus's sublimely talented midfielder Diego Valeri has his sights set on a solid season, and all eyes will be on Andres Franzoia (now with Rosario Central), Ruben Ramirez (Colon), Gonzalo Bergessio (San Lorenzo) and Ignacio Piatti (Gimnasia La Plata) to see if they can fulfil their recent promise.
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