The statement in the headline is probably the least controversial thing that’s been said in Argentine football in the decade-and-a-bit that I’ve been watching it. Yes, other champions in that time have managed more points, or have lost fewer games on their way to the title. But Newell’s championship— confirmed yesterday afternoon when Lanús failed to overturn a 2-0 deficit away to Estudiantes when the second half of their called-off match was played— has been glorious to watch. They’ve had plenty of praise already, but here’s mine.
Lots of goals
Newell’s have scored forty goals so far in the 2013 Torneo Final. Forty. You’ve got to go back to the Clausura 2004— eighteen championships ago (we have two championships per year here in Argentina, remember)— before you find a champion who scored more than forty goals; in that campaign River Plate emerged victorious with forty-one. And Newell’s, remember, still have one game to play. It took two of the best defences in the league— Lanús and Arsenal de Sarandí— to shut them out, and nine of their twelve wins have been by two or more goals. In spite of having a frankly slightly too open defence, they’ve still managed to rack up a goal difference of +20. Half the teams in the league haven’t even managed to score twenty goals.
And just look at them!
Here’s a video (not the best quality, sorry) of all Newell’s goals in the championship. Enjoy. They’re capable of mixing it up and scoring ugly when they need to, but there’s a very high proportion of really well-taken ones, too.
A fantastic manager
Gerardo Martino was in charge of the Paraguayan national team who reached the final of the 2011 Copa América right here in Argentina. Many observers then grumbled about the lack of attacking football in that tournament, and Paraguay were seen as one of the worst offenders— they didn’t score a goal during the knockout stages, advancing from the quarter- and semi-finals only on penalties after 0-0 draws. Newell’s style of play has made abundantly clear that those results were testimony to Martino’s brilliance at getting the most from limited tools, though, rather than an indicator that dull football is his first preference.
His influence has been such that Real Madrid reportedly have him as their third choice at present to replace José Mourinho. Admittedly their first choice is Carlo Ancelotti and their second is, to quote La Nación‘s sports site, ‘someone well-known’, but that he’s even on the radar of a club the size of Madrid says an awful lot.
A great mix of experience and youth
Gabriel Heinze and Maxi Rodríguez are the names you’re most likely to know from this Newell’s squad if you’ve previously watched European football and aren’t so familiar with the Argentine league. In fact, they’re the names most Argentines knew prior to this season, as well. Heinze played just six games for Newell’s back at the start of a career that has since taken in Paris Saint—Germain, Manchester United and Real Madrid among others, whilst Maxi stayed for rather longer (56 games) before spells at Espanyol and Atlético de Madrid in Spain, and Liverpool in England. Both have picked up plenty of caps for the Argentine national team.
There are less internationally famous players who also have their fair share of experience, not least Ignacio Scocco. The league’s leading goalscorer through not just the Torneo Final, but the whole 2012-13 season (eleven of the goals in that video above are scored by him), Scocco’s class is emphasised by the fact he’s also one of the top goalscorers in the Copa Libertadores, a competition Newell’s are still in (more on that below). Plenty of European clubs are interested, and at 28 years of age he’ll be eager to grab what could turn out to be his last opportunity to really step up his game in Europe if presented with the chance.
These guys have been among the outstanding players of Newell’s campaign (and it pains me, as a Manchester United fan who thinks the guy’s an absolute tool, to say that about Heinze), but there have been plenty of others coming through the ranks. Santiago Vergini, Hernán Villalba, Martín Tonso and Horacio Orzán have all been great in midfield when called upon to replace more experienced heads, whilst 22-year-old Maximiliano Urruti would have played far more, and surely scored a lot more goals, but for the fact he has Scocco ahead of him in the centre forward pecking order. Newell’s don’t have the largest squad in the league, but it is a perfect blend.
The potential to make history
Okay, if you’re new to Argentine football, one thing I wrote two paragraphs up might be confusing. what do I mean by, ‘not just the Torneo Final, but the whole 2012-13 season’? Well, simply put, there are two championships per season in Argentina. One during the first half of the season and one during the second. The first championship used to be called the Apertura and is now (starting with this season that’s just finishing) known as the Inicial, whilst the second used to be called the Clausura, and is now known as the Final. Both take the same format; one game against every other side in the league, with fixtures mirrored between championships (i.e. if your side played against Boca Juniors at home in round 4 of the Inicial, you’ll be playing them away in round 4 of the Final). Aside from the names, something else has changed this season on what seems to be a cosmetic level. You’ll have to tune back in next week to find out what that is. Or, erm, you could look it up yourself. What I mean is, I’ll have cause to write about it next week.
Anyway. This ‘short championship’ system has been in effect for just over two decades. Since 1991-92 (the first in which there were separate champions for the Apertura and Clausura), no side has won both the Torneo Clausura and the Copa Libertadores in the same year. The key here is that the Libertadores takes a lot out of squads— enormous distances to travel, not much time in between matches, and so forth— and is played during the same half of the year as the Clausura. It’s just too demanding. This year, though, Newell’s just might make history. They’re in the semi-finals of the Libertadores, and will play the first leg of that tie at home to Atlético Mineiro of Brazil in about a week and a half. With the Torneo Final title already wrapped up, they have some time to prepare. What’s more, both manager Martino and star forward Scocco have insisted they’ll stay at the club until the Libertadores campaign is over. Atlético won’t be easy to get past— they’ve been one of the best sides in the competition so far— but if Newell’s can manage it, history would edge just a little closer.
So, in short, don’t let the fact that they’re based in Rosario and are therefore way outside your expat radar put you off. I type this as a fan of one of the sides they beat to the title (my team here in Argentina are River Plate); had any other side managed to fluke this title, it would have been a travesty.