River Plate crisis reaches new depths

Relegation playoffs are always impossible to predict, with one team having spent the entire season playing top class teams, and the other second division teams, and you never know how the pressure will affect either team. The games Wednesday and Sunday are even harder to predict than others, as River Plate take on Belgrano(first leg @ 8 E.T.). Yes, the famous  River Plate, the team with star Erik Lamela.

River Plate’s crisis of recent years, under the terrible Jose Maria Aguilar, finally ended in the inevitable, after a 2-1 loss to Lanus this Saturday. In Argentina, relegation is found by points average over 3 years, with 2 championships a year, so a big club can have a bad season and still keep their spot in the top division.

To be fair to River, all the traditional “big clubs” are moving steadily downhill. Boca Juniors, River’s eternal rivals, are none too happy with recent performances. Juan Roman Riquelme has more right to complain than anyone. He has not been used to his full potential by the club. Also at Boca, great Martin Palermo played his last game.

In one year’s time we may be asking this about Boca Juniors, but right now the biggest question in football: Will River Plate go down?

Meanwhile, Argentina continues to prepare for a Copa America that is also moving away from Buenos Aires, with only one game, although it is the final, to be staged there. The national team played against Albania yesterday, and were a joy to watch, eventually winning 4-0. The rest of my Copa America preview:

GROUP B

Analysis of this group must begin with the second favorites, a Brazil team that has disappointed under Mano Menezes. Recently, the team lost to Argentina and France, and then barely held on in Ronaldo’s last game, a 1-0 win over Romania, boos ringing around the stadium after the game. Later that evening, Menezes controversially selected Fred ahead of Leandro Damiao and Nilmar in the Brazil squad, having already excluded Marcelo and Hulk. Despite constantly saying his focus is on getting ready for the World Cup, Menezes and his squad will face tons of pressure. Although everybody on the team is a star, pay special attention to Thiago Silva, the new cornerstone of the defense, and young prodigies Neymar and Ganso.

In the toughest of the three groups, the other three teams are remarkably evenly-matched, with Paraguay the best of the lot. Overshadowed by Uruguay at the last World Cup, they won their group and almost beat Spain in the quarterfinals. Expect more of the same with a mostly unchanged squad. Most of the defenders and midfielders play in South America. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The jury is  still out.

Ecuador and Venezuela are both optimistic about their chances going forward, but everyone in South America is. Ecuador are slowly transitioning between the team that made the World Cups of 2002 and 2006 and the team that will play at this year’s U-20 tournament. They have only one player even close to becoming a star: Antonio Valencia. Venezuela typically finish tenth out of ten in any South American competition, but recently got to the Copa quarters and within two points off a play-off for WC Qualification. This tournament is key, as the team is desperate to show it wasn’t a fluke.

GROUP C

All eyes on Alexis Sanchez, set to become the newest Barcelona squad member, as he leads hungry Chile into the Copa America. On the back of a 4-0 demolishing of Estonia, and with stars all over the pitch, it will most likely be Chile who takes the trophy if Argentina and Brazil don’t. The 3-4-3 formation makes sense considering the team’s three top strikers and good attacking midfield, while the few, average defenders get help from two defensive midfielders and a very good ‘keeper.

Mexico will not contend for the title, as they usually do. They face the same problems as Costa Rica (new rule which says players who play in the Gold Cup cannot play and the Gold Cup is more important, so only five players can be over 22, plus club teams not having to release players) plus the U-20 generation swept up to the World Cup in Colombia. Indeed, Carlos Vela, the star surprisingly kept out of the Gold Cup to play here, won’t be released by Arsenal. This basically leaves a team of 21 and 22 year-olds who play in Mexico. This is a strong generation, though, and they’ll be competitive in Argentina.

Competitive enough to take 2nd place in the group? Doubtful, with Chile and Uruguay likely battling for top spot in Group C. What to make of this Uruguay squad? They have vast potential, and were the best South American team at World Cup 2010. The forwards are great- Forlan, Cavani, and Suarez, with Hernanes and Abreu on the bench. The defense and midfield are solid, but hardly spectacular in South America.  Having only three in the midfield could lead to problems, and they only have one type of player here. If you can close down the offense, you can beat Uruguay. Perez, Gargano, and Eguren are the hard-working, hard-tackling core of the team, while the defense remains underrated. A Porto, Athletico Madrid, and Sevilla player all play for Uruguay at defense. Good teams will find holes here.In goal, Muslera can be very good or very bad. The coach is good, too. On paper making the WC semis shouldn’t have been a surprise, considering their opponents. In reality, they’ll likely fall back into the under-performing abyss that has always been theirs.

Blow after blow has hit the country of Peru in their preparations. It all started so well for the little South Americans. With the two best 3rd-placed teams advancing, a quarterfinal berth was likely. That would be a remarkable feat considering how  they did in World Cup Qualification. They hired an excellent, experienced coach in Sergio Markarian. They were the better side in scoreless draws with the Czech Republic and Japan. Because of the high-quality offense, it was possible to forget being humiliated by all of South America’s teams, conceding 26 goals in nine away games. Not anymore. Likely starter Guerrero was the first ruled out of the Copa America. Starter Juan Vargas soon followed. The worst was saved for last: Cluadio Pizarro ruled out. One of the four offensive starters remained. Will Farfan go too?

-The Gold Cup returns tomorrow. The U.S.A.-Panama rematch could be one for the ages, but more than likely we’ll see more U.S. and Mexico dominance.

-Also reaching the semifinal stage tomorrow, the European U-21s. And it’ll likely have two much better soccer games than the Gold Cup. Dominant Spain play Belarus, while my Czech Republic take on Switzerland.

-Iceland may have a bright future. Just participating at the U-21 Euro tournament is a big step up. They have a genuine star in Gylfi Sigurdsson.

– I watched the U.S. demolish the Czechs at the U-17 World Cup, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat Bob Bradley’s senior side.

-The big news today is Villas-Boas leaving Porto, likely to join Chelsea. More of a focus on club football next time.

-In keeping with our South American theme, I’ll end today with the Copa Libertadores. Santos held Penarol to a 0-0 draw, in Uruguay in the first leg of the final. The key game is tomorrow at 8:50 E.T.

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