Relegated River cast shadow over top tier

BUENOS AIRES - The mood in Argentina at the start of a new season this weekend is quite different from a mere two months ago - before River Plate's shock relegation and the national team's Copa America failure.

The prospect of a season without a 'Superclasico' - the country's biggest derby between arch enemies River and Boca Juniors - was unheard of, as was the idea that the second-tier Nacional B division might actually be of huge interest.

River have been on a recruiting drive that has put most of the top flight clubs in the shade with the return of players such as strikers Fernando Cavenaghi and Alejandro Dominguez, who helped them win titles in the early 2000s.

They have been making headline news almost every day as they prepare to try to bounce back in one season.

A controversial plan espoused by Argentine Football Association (AFA) president Julio Grondona to merge the top two divisions into a 38-team national championship from next season also made waves until it was literally shouted down.

Amid suspicions it was being devised to help River and make sure other top sides like Boca do not risk a similar fate, Grondona took less than a week to say the idea had been "put in the freezer."

Club directors, coaches and players criticised the concept in the media and fans staged a protest against Grondona outside AFA headquarters, while River's president Daniel Passarella and new coach Matias Almeyda, both former captains, said they wanted to come back up by their own means.

Grondona sacked Argentina coach Sergio Batista after the Copa America hosts could not get past the quarter-finals and has replaced him with Alejandro Sabella, who will be keeping a close eye on the domestic league after the failure of a team packed with elite European exiles.

BOCA TARGETS

Champions Velez Sarsfield have quietly gone about the business of preparing to defend their title, while making good money for new signings with the transfer of midfielders Ricky Alvarez to Inter Milan and Maxi Moralez to Atalanta.

Boca have gone nearly three seasons without a title, a long time for a club of their standing when there are two on offer per season, the Apertura (opening) from August to December followed by the Clausura (closing) from February to June.

Following Martin Palermo's retirement, Boca signed former Ajax Amsterdam striker Dario Cvitanich.

Juan Roman Riquelme, on whom their hopes are centred again after an injury-plagued 2010/11 season, has taken over the captain's armband.

Two major Boca targets close to the deadline were the return of Real Madrid and Argentina midfielder Fernando Gago and the signing of Uruguayan goalkeeper Sebastian Sosa, who helped Penarol reach the final of the Copa Libertadores in June.

A major factor in River's relegation - the result of their poor points average over three seasons in a system ironically devised to save the big clubs from the drop - was how well promoted sides All Boys and Olimpo did.

Neither finished in the relegation zone in the table of three-season points averages and instead two other sides who have traditionally been a part of the top flight, Huracan and Gimnasia de La Plata, went down with River.

Few of the major derbies remain as Estudiantes will not face Gimnasia while Rosario Central, whose arch-rivals are Newell's Old Boys, continue to struggle in the Nacional B.

That leaves the Avellaneda derby between Independiente, who have brought back Argentina central defender Gabriel Milito from Barcelona, and Racing Club, now under coach Diego Simeone, as the major first division 'clasico'.


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