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May 21, 2014

River flow once more

Six years between league titles isn't a very long wait for the vast majority of clubs in the world. Even in a league like Argentina's, where six years is a spell that sees not six, but 12 top flight championships contested, almost any group of fans would be ecstatic to win two titles six years apart.

But most clubs in Argentina aren't River Plate, and even in a country where a lack of footballing consistency is the order of the day for all sorts of reasons, almost none have been through as many ups and downs in the last six years as River, who on Sunday sealed their 35th league Primera Division title.

In 2008, a River side managed by Diego Simeone and led by Diego Buonanotte and a veteran Ariel Ortega claimed River's 34th. But just six months later, still with Simeone in charge, they finished bottom of the 2008 Torneo Apertura, and the rot set in.

Argentina's relegation system is run over a three-year long table in which points are divided by games played to provide an average (the Spanish for this, promedio, gives the table its name). With years of success, River were cushioned for a while, but successive poor seasons led to their relegation in June 2011.

Coming back up was more of a challenge than many expected -- as Independiente are currently discovering. The second division is closely fought and highly competitive, with not much of a drop in quality, truth be told, from the lower half of the Primera. But River were never out of the automatic promotion spots all season (at the time, only the top two sides won promotion automatically, with third and fourth playing off against sides from the top division), and returned at the first time of asking.

Relegation is the most visible stain on Daniel Passarella's presidency of the club, the former playing and managerial legend having been elected in late 2010, six months or so before relegation. On River's return to the Primera, the club were competitive in two of the three short championships between mid-2012 and the end of 2013, but that didn't stop Passarella -- by now frequently accused of corruption by River fans and media dedicated to the club -- from being all but driven out; when the next club elections came round last December, Passarella didn't even stand, and Rodolfo D'Onofrio was voted in as president by club members on a mandate to clean the club up.

On entering the job, D'Onofrio and his team found the club's finances in a far worse state even than they'd imagined; there were claims of Passarella running up credit card and other debt among other forms of malpractice. Last month, River's new board presented a formal accusation in court against Passarella, citing a PriceWaterhouse Coopers audit of the club to support their claims against him for fraudulent administration.

Joyous scenes as River Plate players go around their Monumental ground in an open-top bus to celebrate.
Joyous scenes as River Plate players go around their Monumental ground in an open-top bus to celebrate.

While all this went on off the pitch, River were slowly improving on it. During the Torneo Inicial -- the championship played during the first half of the season that's just ended -- they struggled for goals in spite of clearly improving play at home, but away performances were poor. In a championship during which absolutely everyone seemed to find away results hard to come by -- even eventual winners San Lorenzo managed to win just 50 percent of the available points away from home, and theirs was the best home record in the division -- River's lack of firepower at home cost them, and they finished 17th.

The Torneo Final -- the championship held in the season's second half, which River have just won -- has been a different story. From 12 goals scored during the 19 games of the Inicial, River improved to bang in 28 goals in 19 games. And while their away form remained poor -- two away wins is the fewest of any champions in Argentine football history -- they were terrifying at home, losing once (to a last-minute goal from Godoy Cruz) and winning all of their other nine matches in the Estadio Monumental, including the last eight in a row, in seven of which they kept clean sheets.

Even away from home, there's been a clear recent improvement -- in their last five away matches, they've won two, drawn two and lost one. In every sense, it's hard to escape the feeling that River are starting to feel like River again. But even so, there was something missing, an itch that still needed to be scratched.

On Sunday, they didn't so much scratch that itch as take an industrial metal file to it. Hours after a near unbelievable end to the matches in the relegation scrap, Quilmes arrived at the Monumental having secured their safety from relegation the previous weekend with a 2-0 victory over River's title rivals Gimnasia La Plata.

Quilmes have frequently been tricky opponents for River in recent seasons, though, and having been relegated alongside them in 2011 and come back up at the same time a year later, their troubled situation perhaps highlights how far River's recovery has come.{C}{C}{C}{C}There were fears of nerves at River, questions about whether a squad mostly made up of players never to have challenged for a title in the club's colours would buckle under the pressure.

River Plate are back on top in Argentine football.
River Plate are back on top in Argentine football.

But they tore into Quilmes early on, taking a 10th-minute lead when Fernando Cavenaghi pounced on a hashed goalkeeping parry to stab home and calm the players and fans, and they ended up running out 5-0 winners. The club wthat prides itself on giving fans "the three G's" -- "Ganar, Gustar y Golear", or "Win, Enjoy and Score Lots" -- had scored five for the first time since the midpoint of the 2012 Torneo Inicial.

The players piled onto a team bus for a lap of honour on the Monumental running track; it was decked out in the slogan under which D'Onofrio's presidential campaign had been run: "River Are River Again." There's a lot of hard work ahead if they're going to stay where they are, but if they can't enjoy this title win, of all title wins, then what can they enjoy? River Plate are back in business, ladies and gentlemen.