From the depths of despair, a small glint of light shines through. Boca Juniors, suffering one of the worst runs of form in their history and the disappointment of seeing the return of club legend Carlos Bianchi as manager fall flat on its face, were preparing to enter Sunday’s superclásico against River Plate in the lowest spirits possible. Then, from nowhere, came salvation, of sorts.
Boca Juniors (photo by Matthew Winterburn on flickr)
It was the start of two weeks that would define Bianchi’s third spell as Boca coach, and very possibly his future at the Bombonera. The veteran trainer enjoys a privileged status around La Boca as one of its most successful figures in history; under his command, the club lifted three Copa Libertadores titles, four league trophies and, most famously, two titles in the old Intercontinental Cup over European opposition. No-one would have thought back in January that just four months into his latest stint, he fate would depend on a set of four key matches in quick succession.
A Copa Libertadores last-16 clash at home to Corinthians, followed by two derby matches against River and San Lorenzo, and rounded off by the return match against the Brazilians, who downed the Xeneize in the Copa final just under 12 months ago. A strong showing across the fortnight would leave Boca buoyant after suffering in 2013 – especially domestically, where their 10-game run without winning in the Primera División equals their worst-ever record. Failure would put great pressure on the man they call El Virrey to lift the team for the second half of the year.
Thankfully for supporters of one of Argentina’s biggest sporting institutions, a brief respite was secured this week with a win in the first of these key matches, over Corinthians. Playing against the South American and world champions, and one of the favourites to repeat their triumph this year, Boca were far more solid and organised than they have shown themselves during a chaotic league campaign, keeping a clean sheet against an attack that scored freely during the group stages. The icing on the cake came with an hour gone. A skewed cross-shot from Cristian Erbes was latched upon by Nicolas Blandi, and the striker finished perfectly to cap a 1—0 victory that gives his side a slim advantage ahead of the second leg. All of a sudden, things do not look so bad ahead of Sunday’s season-defining match.
The win, however, cannot hide the clear weaknesses Bianchi has had to tackle in his first season as coach since leaving for the last time in 2004. Principal among which, is the status of Boca legend and fading star Juán Román Riquelme.
Riquelme training with Boca Juniors in 2009 (photo: wikimedia commons)
After six months out in the wilderness, after he walked away from Boca following 2012’s Libertadores final defeat to Corinthians, the playmaker was enticed back to team up again with Bianchi at the start of the year. So far though, the partnership has failed to reach the heights of previous spells. Román has struggled with fitness and form, and a muscle tear forced him out of Wednesday’s Libertadores win. He is expected to make the superclásico, but at this stage it is far from clear if that is a boost for his team or a possible liability.
An inconsistent Riquelme, a disastrous defence that is the second-leakiest in the whole division, and a legendary coach struggling to make a winning team out of an undoubtedly talented squad plagued by injury and imbalance; that is the panorama currently facing Boca as they prepare for this weekend’s blockbuster clash. Victory over Corinthians has recovered some of the faith and confidence so severely lacking in recent weeks, but a win against the old rivals in front of the Bombonera faithful is still a big ask as the rescue mission continues on its first, tentative steps.