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Jun 29, 2013

A season to remember in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Argentine football, for better or worse, never stands still for long. And it's for that reason - and seemingly no other - that the format of the top flight here changed again in the season just gone. On the face of it, it's been the same as ever, but there have been some cosmetic alterations that have done more to confuse than to improve the league.

We'll begin with the relegation of one of the biggest clubs in the country - and indeed the world - for the first time in their history. No, reader, you haven't been transported back in time two years, don't worry. I'm not talking about River Plate - there'll be more about them later - but Independiente.

Following River's relegation in 2011, Independiente and Boca Juniors were the only two clubs in Argentina never to have been relegated, and along with Arsenal de Sarandí, who came up to the Primera in 2002, were the only three never to have dropped down from the top flight.

Independiente had been in the Primera since 1912, and their longevity and proud history both domestically and continentally (they're the most successful club in the history of the Copa Libertadores, with seven trophies) will make seeing them in the second division as strange an experience in many ways as it was watching River there.

A point many thought would be in Independiente's favour in their battle against the drop was the fact that Julio Grondona, the president of the Argentine FA, is an Independiente fan. There were conspiratorial whispers among fans of other clubs claiming Independiente wouldn't be allowed to go down.

By mid-March, though, they were in far deeper water than River had been at the same stage two years previously. Their situation was worsened by the fact that the relegation system has been changed slightly in Argentina this season; whereas previously two sides would drop straight down and the two just above them would play off against the third and fourth-placed sides from the division below, as from this year the bottom three go straight down, with no play-offs.

When Independiente had a mini-revival, winning three out of four and drawing the other against championship leaders Lanús, hope reared its head, but the wins had all come against sides in poor form, including San Martín, who themselves were relegated on the last day by a 3-1 defeat away to River.

Towards the end of the season, reality reasserted itself for Independiente. It seems that even in a league such as Argentina, where the AFA was long managed by the whims of the country's 'Big Five' clubs (River, Independiente, Boca Juniors, Racing and San Lorenzo), there really is no club too big - or well-connected - to go down these days. As I type, nearly two weeks on from the relegation, barra bravas and fans are rioting at the club's general assembly - the latest in many deplorable off-pitch incidents so far in 2013, which included police shooting dead a Lanús fan in La Plata.

River themselves can be quietly satisfied with their first season back in the Primera. Eighth in the Torneo Inicial but second in the Final, over the course of 2012-13 they had the third best points total, and a year after returning to the Primera they've secured continental qualification for the first time in four years - they'll be in the Copa Sudamericana when the new season gets underway in August. The football has rarely lived up to the standards River fans expect, but results at least have been good enough to give them a platform to build on next season.

Even better for River fans was that their bitter rivals Boca Juniors have had the worst campaign in their history; they finished second bottom of the Torneo Final with just eighteen points from nineteen matches, and were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores on penalties by Newell's Old Boys, a side who are now on the verge of making history.

That's because Newell's claimed the Torneo Final title, and the fact that they're still in the Libertadores gives them the opportunity to become the first side to win both the first of Argentina's two annual championships and the Libertadores. They lost an unusually high number of matches for a championship-winning side - five - as midweek distractions sometimes got the better of them, and it's the first time since 1997 that the side finishing second have lost fewer games than the team in top spot. Even so, it's still hard to argue Newell's don't deserve their crown.

They've scored forty goals in nineteen games - more than any side since Leonardo Astrada's River Plate in 2004. Twelve wins is also a more than respectable tally, but what doesn't come through in mere numbers is just how great Newell's have been to watch. In a league where economic realities make it hard to keep a group of good players together for very long, it's not often that we get to witness collective play and as attacking an ethos as that which manager Gerardo Martino instilled into his side.

Forward Ignacio Scocco has led the line superbly as well, and as with his manager, has been linked with a move abroad once the club's Libertadores campaign is over.

Before the semi-finals kick off, Newell's have the distraction on Saturday of the 'Superfinal' against Vélez Sarsfield; this season the AFA have decided there will be a final between the winners of the season's two championships to decide an overall season champion.

Ridiculously, with both sides having been credited with a championship win for their 'short championship' victories during the season, whoever wins this one match will be allowed to list another national championship on their record. It remains to be seen, of course, how seriously everyone will take this, but personally I sincerely hope it will be seen for the farce it is.

Farcical title play-offs aside, though, it's been a championship to remember for many reasons in Argentina.

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