Botox-free Palermo hits the right end of the spectrum as Boca beat River

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Juan Román Riquelme said it was marginally more important than a practise match for Boca. Matías Almeyda promised that River would be treating it as a cup final, but seconds later doubled back with ‘these games serve no purpose.’

Pre-season derbies are tricky. Technically speaking there is nothing at stake, but it is impossible for River and Boca to face each other without all sense of proportion being lost.

The players can try to play down the importance all they want. They may argue that there are no points for the taking. They may argue that the preseason has only just begun so we really can’t extrapolate from the results. There is no continental cup qualification riding on the outcome... But it is futile.

Knowing which of the two – fans or TV – hyped The Summer Tournaments in Argentina up into such a big deal is a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum. They just ‘are.’

More often that not, TV ratings are high. Depending on who is playing, there is also a good turn out of fans, helped by the fact that many games are played in seaside resorts. It doesn’t matter that the players are not ready for serious competition yet, nor that many teams are still planning on bringing in new faces. Baked-bean coloured TV presenters get the hype-machine rolling, the transfer tittle tattle continues in the background, and we are subjected to, in the most part, second string sides putting in third-rate performances.

The superclásico tends to raise the bar, however, not always in the quality of football on display but because of the very nature of the game. No match between River and Boca can fail to set pulses racing.

In this year’s first meeting between the two, the onus was largely on Boca. River haven’t really bought, haven’t really sold, and haven’t really changed a great deal since last season.

Boca have a new coach. Boca have big name transfer targets. Boca have new players. Boca have Riquelme waiting to return. It was up to Boca to make this game kick off.

Also, Boca were out for revenge. Last year in Mar del Plata, the seaside resort where these tournaments usually take place, the fixture put Alfio Basile out of work, and put River’s striker Gabriel Funes Mori on the map.

But while new Boca coach Julio Falcioni goes about moulding the side into a decent outfit, and while we wait for the return of Riquelme, it is still up to San Martín Palermo to deliver.

Palermo is getting so old that watching him alongside teenagers is rather like a real life Latin American version of the film Rocky Balboa, where the botoxed 50-something legend comes out of retirement to mix it with the kids.

Sure, there is no botox in Palermo (that is, as one fame-seeking doctor bizarrely alleged, another Argentine international…), but the grey hairs are showing through. At times his lack of mobility is chronic. At 37 years of age, just how can Martín Palermo be the star of one of the world’s biggest derbies?

‘He goes from comedy to tragedy too easily,’ wrote Horacio Garcia the following day in Olé, ‘from the ridiculous to the heroic. He himself recognises it, it is part of his very essence.’

That is Palermo in a nutshell. His performances can hit either end of the spectrum, and they do hit both ends of it.

Against River at the weekend, it was one of the displays that sends fans into delirium, and tees up irony-lacking headlines that suggest that Palermo should play into his 50s. He was sensational.

First there was an assist to put Boca 1-0 up. Then there was a trademark header, a brilliant goal to double the lead. Then there were the backheels. Then there was the 180 degree Zidane spin. Lucas Viatri, who must feel like he has been The Next Palermo for the last 48 years, clapped and laughed on the sideline. Was this really happening?

It was. Whether it will happen much more is a question we should all know the answer to. Palermo has few of these performances left. But the sight of a 37 year old Palermo spinning on a sixpence makes these preseason friendlies a whole lot more bearable.