Argentina · South America

River Plate, the “B” version *update*

Estadio Monumental
Estadio Monumental, home of River Plate

Though many fans of River Plate are still slowly coming to terms with the thought of having to play in the second division in Argentina, others have already begun planning and thinking about the challenge ahead.

No one was surprised when JJ Lopez was dropped as manager (and director of the club’s youth divisions), but everyone was surprised when team captain Matías Almeyda was offered and accepted the position in a matter of hours, rather than days, retiring as a player in the process.

It seems like a major gamble, going into a new division with a new and completely unproven manager, especially one who is taking his first ever administrative post in football. There is no questioning Almeyda’s leadership abilities and the respect he commands among the squad. Whether he has the tactical and man-management skills required from the position remains to be seen. I think many of us saw him as someone who would transition to football management sooner rather than later, but those thoughts usually saw him as an assistant to a more experienced man, allowing him to gain experience and slowly develop a managerial philosophy.

Well, “slowly” is out the door now.

A philosophy is required immediately. Speculation on what Almeyda will be like as a manager is just that, speculation, until the team actually takes the pitch for their first meaningful game in the Nacional B (second division) on 17 August versus an opponent yet to be determined.

Almeyda was quoted in the press saying he prefers an attacking 4-3-1-2 with fullbacks very active on the wings to try to attack with as many bodies as possible. All of that, however, may depend on the players he has available.

So who is available you ask? Let’s see.

Definitely gone

* Juan Pablo Carrizo, the goalkeeper was on loan from Lazio. Whether he goes back to Lazio or not is undetermined, but he will not be with River next season.

* Mariano Pavone and Leandro Caruso, two more loanees, owned by Real Betis in Spain and Udinese in Italy respectively. As with Carrizo, future destinations are yet to be determined, but it definitely won’t be River Plate.

* Erik Lamela, the young star-in-the-making would be everyone’s first choice to stay, but he is the only player currently owned by River Plate of significant value, so he will be sold to help the club cope with their crippling debt. Some think that they drop in divisions may harm his asking price, but I doubt it. His talent is clear and there are more than one team looking to buy him so with some sensible negotiation River Plate should be able to get a good price for him.

* Jonathan Maidana, Alexis Ferrero, Adalberto Román, Carlos Arano. For a team that gave up so few goals, you’d think the defence is something they’d try to keep intact, but actually all of their defenders with the largest number of starts should be gone for next season. In almost all cases, they’ll find a spot elsewhere in the first division of Argentina or in South America. The club should receive some money for these players as I believe most of them are owned by the club, not loanees. But their fees are likely to be no more than a fraction of what Lamela would bring in.

On the bubble:

* Paulo Ferrari, the wingback was one of the longest-serving members of the squad and could be a beneficial veteran presence for the squad in the second division, but with the club looking to shed salaries, he could be a casualty.

* Walter Acevedo, another possible salary casualty. Acevedo was loaned back to Argentina after being bought by Metallist Kharkov in the Ukraine because of a “lack of professionalism” (some have said he preferred to party than train). Acevedo is young and a solid if unspectacular performer with a penchant for booming balls in from outside the penalty box that go nowhere near the goal.

* Juan Manuel Díaz, a wingback/centreback who was shuttled between the two positions last season. Díaz was a contributor to the Estudiantes championship squads of the last few seasons. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is significant interest in him from either Argentine or Uruguayan (his home country) first division squads.

So what’s left

There is still quite a bit of young talent in the squad, with quite a bit of match experience: midfielders Manuel Lanzini and Roberto Pereyra to provide good touches and provide a solid midfield. Ezequiel Cirigliano can do the same as a holding midfielder. Facundo Affranchino can play several positions in midfield. Leandro Gonzalez Pires had a limited but rather impressive cameo as a central defender and should get a chance to shine as a starter.

Leandro Chichizola deputised for Carrizo in goal and got a couple of games in when Carrizo was injured to start this past season. Daniel Vega has dropped to 3rd/4th choice at goalkeeper the last few seasons, but he has over 50 appearances for the club.

Forward has been the trouble position for River Plate since Radamel Falcao García left the club (even before that, actually, since even then they were trying to find a partner for him). In that light, retaining players such as Rogelio Funes Mori, Daniel Villalva, Mauro Díaz and Gustavo Bou may not be a heartwarming thought. But then again, they may find the second division more to their liking (and corresponding more to their level). Still, a veteran attacker who has a track record of actually scoring goals would be quite handy.

The wishlist

Many players have expressed a desire to return to play at River Plate during this difficult time. The biggest name in that list, Fernando Cavenaghi has already been rejected by club president Daniel Passarella (much to Cavenaghi’s disappointment).

###############        UPDATE        ###################
It now appears that Cavenaghi is back in the frame after Almeyda asked for him specifically. He has met with Passarella to resolve any pending personal issues (it really is amazing how many people Passarella has pissed off in his time as player, manager and administrator). He has ended his stay at Internacional of Porto Alegre, which is no bad thing since teams are limited to 3 foreign nationals and Internacional had 4 (aside from Cavenaghi, Andrés D’Alessandro, Mario Bolatti and Pablo Guiñazu). His contract with Girondins Bordeaux ends in June 2012, but apparently he will be able to arrange an early termination. If he does indeed return to River Plate, it’ll mean a massive drop in salary, and a massive boost in terms of hero status with River Plate fans.
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The other biggest name, Ariel Ortega, returns to the club after being loaned to All Boys but has been rejected by Almeyda. Not altogether a bad decision as Ortega has had a well-publicised battle with alcoholism and on top of that struggled greatly against injuries. He was mostly a non-factor for All Boys who had an otherwise successful campaign last season staying in the first division.

Speaking of former River Plate players in All Boys, the Ogre – Cristian Fabbiani – has also talked about returning to River Plate for this season. Fabbiani is easily one of the biggest forwards in Argentina, and I mean in terms of girth rather than reputation or ability. Unlikely at best, I would say.

Two other returning loanees are holding midfielder Nicolas Domingo (played with Nacional in Uruguay last season) and defender Cristian Nasuti (AEK Athens). Both got their big breaks with River Plate in the first division and have spent most of the last few seasons outside of Argentina. Salaries are a concern here. Both would be good additions, but it all depends on whether they are more valuable to the club as players or as sources of funds. Nasuti in particular could be useful as a veteran defender in a rebuilt back line.

Another ex-River defender, Ariel Garcé, seems to be in the frame. Garcé is probably most famous for being included in the 2010 Argentina World Cup team by Diego Maradona for seemingly no reason other than to exclude Javier Zanetti. The fact that Garcé is talking about playing in the second division and no one is batting an eyelash tells you how ridiculous Maradona’s decision was. Unlikely for River.

Alejandro “Chori” Domínguez, forward/midfielder for Rubin Kazan in Russia, is also pushing for a return. Domínguez could be a difference maker for the club and provide them with a forward of talent and experience. Also, of a high salary. Unlikely unless he is willing to take a major (and I do mean major) paycut.

Germán Lux. The Olympic-medal winning goalkeeper who came up through the youth ranks at River Plate has found himself out of favour for a couple of years now at Mallorca and could actually be a good possibility to return.  Unfortunately it’s at a position where River may actually have decent cover. Still, there’s more than a good chance for him to return.

A delicate situation

It’s all quite complicated at the moment by the fact that River Plate is trying to manage a massive debt by selling players (and suing the former club president Jose María Aguilar and his second-in-command Mario Israel). Player sales mean that they will have to find a replacement and relying solely on the reserves and youth divisions could severely hamper the team’s ability to bounce back to the first division after only one year.

I have no doubt that River will have to make some purchases. I think it is more likely to see them bring in some second-division veterans to play alongside the kids and then shed them if (hopefully, when) they return to the top division.

What you can definitely expect is a lot of surprises. They are the biggest club ever to be relegated in Argentine history. There is still a potential points-deduction for the riots post-match after they were relegated. If they get deducted points, they will be forced to go for a big points haul and do well enough to win the division and that could mean desperation will set in early and the club will spend quickly, and badly.

On top of that, there’s been a rumour making the rounds that a lot of the players in the club’s youth divisions are looking to leave the club to ensure maximum exposure to potential buyers. Club administrators have denied it, and it probably is more rumour than truth. But if River Plate take more than one year to return to the first division, that rumour may well become true. There isn’t much time left before the beginning of the season, and a lot to do.

The club should look at this as a way or permanently fixing what’s been wrong with the club for years. They’ve hit rock-bottom (well, not really, but another relegation is extremely unlikely unless they get docked 15-20 points, which would be very surprising).

This is a time to start building with an eye towards the future. First, promotion, followed by stability. Then we can start thinking again about titles and Copa Libertadores. The top teams in Argentine football today are the ones that have the best administration: Velez Sarsfield, Lanús, Estudiantes de La Plata. That is what River should be looking to emulate right now.

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