Pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming: the day we thought would never arrive is finally here! The 2016-17 Argentine football season kicks off today, and I’ll be here each week to take you through the highlights ahead of each weekend. Before we begin, a quick plug for the season preview episode of Hand Of Pod, the internet’s first, best and – yes, okay – only Argentine football podcast, which also includes an interview with noted football writer Jonathan Wilson about his new book, Angels With Dirty Faces, a footballing history of Argentina. I’ll try and mix the format up a little from week to week this season, so without further ado let’s take a look at some of the opening weekend’s most attractive games.
Lanús v Boca Juniors (Sunday, 8 PM)
A clash between the two most recent champions of the country in the opening weekend is clearly the highlight. The defending champion Lanús has lost some key players over the winter break, most notably center back Gustavo Gómez and midfielder Víctor Ayala. All the same they’ve kept hold of others. José Sand, the striker who’s rubbish everywhere else but very good for Lanús, flying midfielder Miguel Almirón and defender Diego Braghieri are among the players who remain, and Lanús looks in good shape to put up a spirited defense of its title. It lost 2-0 at home to Independiente on Thursday night in the Copa Sudamericana first round first leg, suggesting there are some creases to be ironed out – the team’s performance was impressive, but it lacked a cutting edge up front and the visitor’s counter-attacks caught it out.
Lanús kicks off the campaign at home to Boca. Boca has made plenty of changes over the winter, with most of them made ahead of the Copa Libertadores semi-finals in July, which it lost to Independiente Del Valle of Ecuador. Midfielder Fernando Zuqui has been the one success of those signings so far, but the others still have time to bed in. all the same, there’s a lot riding on Zuqui and fellow midfielders (and even newer arrivals) Wilmar Barrios and Sebastián Pérez to add to an area in which Boca have looked lacking in the last year.
Belgrano v Independiente (Sunday, 4 PM)
Both of these sides did well enough last year to make it into this year’s Copa Sudamericana, and have had mixed fortunes so far: Belgrano began their Copa tlt with a 1-0 defeat away to Estudiantes de La Plata on Wednesday whereas Independiente picked up a 2-0 smash-and-grab win away to Lanús last night. Belgrano’s biggest change is that Ricardo Zielinski is no longer the manager – having been in charge for the unfathomably long period of five years, El Ruso stood down at the end of last season and has been replaced by Esteban González. There’s been movement in the market but relatively few key players have left, and the club really needs to stabilize after something of a stuttering performance during the Torneo de Transición. Independiente has also changed managers, with Gabriel Milito replacing Mauricio Pellegrino, and have let a number of players go without bringing very many in. All the same they played a fine away game in beating Lanús on Thursday; if they can set up as efficiently during the season they could prove a very dangerous side on the counter-attack.
Racing v Talleres (Saturday, 6 PM)
Racing has bid farewell to a lot of players, as well as to manager Facundo Sava. Sava was sacked ridiculously late in the day, having been reportedly unpopular with directors at the end of last season but not providing them an excuse to get rid of him until defeat to Lanús in the Copa Bicentenario (which was basically a friendly match with a trophy presentation at the end of the game) a couple of weeks ago. Reserve boss Claudio Úbeda is the man currently in the hot seat. Talleres is a real potential banana skin for a club with as much of a history of hilarious (to everyone else) mess-ups as Racing: newly-promoted, Córdoba’s sleeping giant has invested heavily to strengthen its squad and it would be no surprise at all to see it comfortably avoid relegation (four teams will go down at the end of the season, with two promoted next season from the B Nacional). Racing away is a tough early test for a promoted team, but if the host isn’t fully prepared this match could very well become much more interesting that a quick glance at the clubs’ records in recent years would suggest.
Best of the rest
River Plate won its tenth international trophy – and fifth in the two years since Marcelo Gallardo took over as manager – on Thursday night, with new Argentina squad member Lucas Alario scoring the second goal in a 2-1 win over Independiente Santa Fe of Colombia. Its opening league match at home to Banfield should be at 6 PM on Sunday (River asked to postpone it due to the Recopa on Thursday, but given I’m typing this at 4 PM on Friday and there’s been no word yet, I assume it’s going ahead). Both teams like to get forward, so this one should be worth catching.
Godoy Cruz v Huracán (Friday at 9:15 Pm) could also be lively, involving two teams who liked to get forward last year and have made some interesting incorporations over the winter. That being said, the Argentine league will be an ever so slightly poorer place this season for the loss of Huracán striker Ramón Ábila, who’s taken his bizarre nickname (seriously people, he looks nothing like Paulo Wanchope!) off to Cruzeiro of Brazil.
Give these ones a miss
The fact there will actually be a relegation battle, rather than just one team going down, this season will add some intrigue to the late season matches, but this early on, you’d have to be insane to stay in for Sarmiento v Arsenal (Friday at 7 PM) or Temperley v Patronato (Monday at 9:15 PM) to pick a couple of examples. Quilmes v Newell’s Old Boys (Sunday, 2:10 PM) is also probably one to avoid, although it’s going to be fascinating to see how Quilmes boss Alfredo Grelak keeps all of his twenty-one(!) new signings happy. With twenty-six players leaving due to debts owed to them by the club, he’s had to bring in effectively an entire new squad.