River stuck in unfamiliar territory
As the 2008 Argentine Apertura* came to a close, the usual names were there at the top. San Lorenzo. Boca Juniors. Even relative new-boys Lanus. But one key name was missing and could only be found if you continued to read right to the bottom of the league.
Champions of the 2007/08 Clausura*, River Plate finished bottom of the Apertura just six months later - their worst campaign for 107 years - and such a dramatic downturn in form suggests that there are major problems for the Buenos Aires based side.
River got off to the worst start in their history - with just one win in 14 - and while few would have expected a club with such a history of success to finish as the league's worst side, due to the way the Argentine division works, they were never in danger of relegation.
The Primera Division's drop zone works by taking an average of the final league placings over the previous three seasons. It was a measure that was introduced over 25 years ago when River found themselves in danger of dropping out of the league and has often been criticised for favouring the top clubs if they have one poor season.
River, again, are a prime example but sadly, as the new 2009 Clausura gets underway, things don't look like improving. Squandering a 2-0 lead to a ten-man Colón de Santa Fe at the weekend to end up with an injury-time draw, the side are a shadow of the team that dominated the Argentine league in the early 2000s.
Traditionally, the club are much better in the second half of the season than the first, but their position is not that much of a surprise to those who have followed the club's past few campaigns. River had won their last Clausura title without setting the world alight and, having not won a title for the previous four years, there were a number of issues that hinted they would struggle.
The club's spine was ripped out as they lost a number of key players in the summer and they were also dogged by the persistent criticism that their new additions did not make an impact. The departure of 24-year-old goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who joined Lazio in the summer, was a major blow as the Argentine had been one of their best players, saving the day on numerous occasions. And he was not adequately replaced.
Bad man-management also saw the back of impressive attacking players Alexis Sanchez (one of the world's most promising youngsters) to Udinese, and Sebastian Abreu, who left for Beitar Jerusalem against the wishes of coach Diego Simeone, only to return, before then being farmed out on loan to Real Sociedad. While veteran Eduardo Tuzzio was also allowed to leave.
Furthermore, the situation surrounding Ariel Ortega's alcohol addiction cannot have helped. When fit, the inspirational midfielder was the heartbeat of the side and in the right frame of mind, but Simeone took the decision to loan him to second division side Independiente Rivadavia in a bid to cure his alcoholism. It was a controversial move given the stature of the one-time international, but his absence may have caused more problems than good.
Without many of the stars who helped them to Clausura glory, the club were always going to struggle and when the problems continued to mount, the focus turned to the manager.
Simeone's decision to walk away from the club after their Copa Sudamericana defeat to Chivas was easy to understand from a personal point of view, but it was made more hurtful by the fact the Argentine hardman made his decision publicly weeks before the game.
With team morale at an all-time low, the last thing a side needs is for their manager to throw in the towel. The Sudamericana was River's last chance to turn their season around after their dismal league start, but the club needed their manager to stand strong and instead he chose to walk away. Although some will say he had little choice when faced with such a disappointing run of defeats.
The former midfielder had brought glory to the Monumental in his first season and River fans certainly didn't want to see him go. In his last league match against Huracan, the club were down 3-0 after 35 minutes but fans continued to sing songs and wave banners in his honour, before the team rallied to grab a 3-3 draw. 'El Choro' was certainly a popular figure and, despite the fact his tactical nous came under fire from one of the club's greatest ever players, Norberto Alonso, he was still an important figure to lose.
New coach Nestor Gorosito was given the vacant position, with the remit to turn the club around; but the new year did not begin well, as they lost the first 'superclásico' derby of 2009 against a youthful Boca side - ending the game with only nine men. The former Argentinos Juniors coach has been around the block in Argentine football after a successful playing career which began at River in 1982 and moved to bring in some of the club's former stars in a bid to inject some spirit back into the team.
Marcelo Gallardo arrived from a poor spell in the MLS with DC United and has been tipped by many to bring some much-needed leadership on the pitch. The 33-year-old was instrumental to River's successes in the 1990s and his signing, despite the fact that he is recovering from a hernia operation that won't see him play for another month, will still offer the club some hope.
Gorosito also tried to bring Ariel Ortega back to the club, but was caught up in a dispute over a fee required to end the player's loan. Given they will get 'El Burrito' back in the summer anyway, the River board have reportedly axed the deal and Ortega will continue his rehabilitation in the lower leagues.
Striker Cristian Fabbiani has joined, but River President Jose Aguilar and the board of directors have come under fire for bringing in ageing stars and not replacing the spine of the team from last year. Still, they have done well (thus far) to hold onto their top players.
While Diego Buonanotte, Matías Abelairas and Cristian Villagra have been constantly linked with switches to Europe, the one shining light at the club is 'El Tigre', Colombian striker Radamel Falcao Garcia.
The 23-year-old is already an established international and, having joined the Buenos Aires based side when he was 14, has risen to become their best player. Top scorer with 11 goals last season, Falcao only managed five in their Apertura campaign and was reportedly being tracked by the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Real Madrid.
The club's best hope of turning things around in the approaching season comes from retaining the services of the Colombian, who has all the attributes needed to be a class player, and keeping him injury-free. But Argentina has seen many of its best players leave the Primera Division in recent times, so it may not be too long before Falcao decides to move on.
If that happens River will have lost another key player, with probably more to follow, and what could be put down as a ''blip'', could snowball into a full-blown crisis.
Despite their awful Apertura, River still play in the Libertadores Cup as 2008 Clausura champions, but for the fans who have experienced the extreme highs and lows of football in the space of a single year, things could yet get worse before they get better.
* The Argentine league is split into two halves. The Apertura runs from August to September, while the Clausura runs from February to June, so there are two champions each season.