Estudiantes' problems clear way for Boca
Almost everyone is expecting Boca Juniors to come out of its three-year slumber and win the Argentina Clausura tournament when the season starts Friday.
Boca's chances were further enhanced last week when Estudiantes coach Alejandro Sabella, who led the team to the Apertura title in December, suddenly left the club in a huff, upset that officials had not made key offseason signings.
Estudiantes appointed Eduardo Berizzo as a replacement a few days ago, but this is his first job as a head coach.
All of which seems to open the door for Boca, which has a new experienced coach after Julio Cesar Falcioni joined in the offseason from Banfield. He has brought in two new forwards - Walter Erviti and Leando Somoza - to add to veteran forward Martin Palermo and midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme.
''We've very hopeful about the start of the season and what we can do,'' said Falconi, who is trying to bring Boca its first league title since 2008. ''We hope this is the start of a good chapter for Boca.''
With more players increasingly leaving the country, the Argentine league is tough to predict. However, Palermo and Estudiantes captain Juan Sebastian Veron - both 37 - are among the league's veteran player, a list that has grown with the addition of two dozen veterans returning home after stints abroad.
Among them is former Italy international Mauro Camoranesi, who was born in Argentina. He joins Lanus after a decade in Mexico, Italy and most recently with Stuttgart in Germany. Another is Argentine-born Guillermo Franco, a former Mexico international who has joined Velez.
La Plata club Gimnasia has added veteran Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who returns after several seasons in the United States.
Estudiantes is in a tough spot. Berizzo, whose last job was as an assistant to Marcelo Bielsa for the Chile national team, will be blamed if his club doesn't successfully defend its title, a rare feat in Argentina. The team is also spoiled by recent success, including the 2009 Copa Libertadores title - the South American equivalent of Europe's Champions League.
''It happens that I am beginning my career with a very important club, and I hope I am up to it,'' Berizzo said, adding that Bielsa ''has an influence over me. I was his assistant and I learned how he thinks from the inside.''
While Boca seems to be on the up, fierce rival River Plate could be headed the other way.
River finished fourth in the Apertura season, moving out of relegation danger. Relegation in Argentina is based on results over three years. However, the club has made only one signing - forward Fabian Bordagaray - and has ceded team idol Ariel Ortega to All Boys. Ortega skipped an early practice and was shown the door by coach Juan Jose Lopez and club president Daniel Passarella.
''River has a team with many young players,'' captain Matias Almeyda said. ''With time they will bring the club some joy, but for now we'll have to suck it up and compete.
''With the millions Boca has spent, it's the favorite.''
Boca and River are two of what is known as the ''Big Five'' in Argentine football.
Of the remaining three, Racing could have the best shot at the title. The team is led by Colombian midfielder Giovanni Moreno, who has adapted well to the Argentine game.
Another Big Five club is Independiente, which won the 2010 Copa Sudameriana and is likely to devote most of its energy to the Copa Libertadores. It is one five Argentine clubs in the competition.
The final Big Five member is San Lorenzo, which has beefed up by signing Giancarlo Carmona of Peru and Nelson Benitez of Paraguay.
The schedule for the opening round begins with Friday's match between Estudiantes and Newell's Old Boys. The rest of the schedule is: Independiente vs. Velez; Olimpo vs. Banfield; San Lorenzo vs. Gimnasia; Colon vs. Quilmes; All Boys vs. Racing; Boca vs. Godoy Cruz; Tigre vs. River Plate; Lanus vs. Arsenal; and Huracan vs. Argentinos.