Apertura 2011 preview Argentina

The Apertura 2011 tournament kicks off on 5 August 2011. The reigning champions are the only team to have managed to win more than one championship in the last 9 tournaments and are looking to become the first back-to-back champions since Boca Juniors won both of the championships in 2005-06 season.

There are four newly promoted sides in the tournament, Atlético Rafaela and Unión de Santa Fe were promoted as champions and runners-up while San Martín de San Juan and Belgrano de Córdoba won their promotion playoffs. All four of the promoted sides come from the Argentine interior, while the relegated sides were all based in Greater Buenos Aires and Buenos Aires Province.

There will be no Superclásico in Clausura 2011 after the relegation of River Plate meaning that the Avellaneda derby between Racing Club and Independiente will be the showpiece derby game of the tournament. The relegation of Gimnasia and Hurácan means that there will be no La Plata or Buenos Aires derbies either. There will be one new derby game between Colón and Unión of Santa Fe.

Seven teams will also face fixtures in the Copa Sudamericana during the tournament (Independiente, Vélez, Estudiantes,  Godoy Cruz, Lanús, Arsenal & Argentinos Juniors) however as the six teams other than reigning Copa Sudamericana champions Independiente face each other in their opening games, the tournament will not provide much of a distraction to the eliminated sides.

There are also five Copa Libertadores 2012 berths at stake for Argentine sides, Vélez have already qualified as Clausura 2011 champions, another place will go to the best performing Argentine side in Copa Sudamericana 2011, the champions of the Clausura 2011 tournament will receive a place as well as the two best placed sides in the Clausura 2011/Apertura2011 aggregated tables.

All Boys

Last season was All Boys first in the top flight since 1980 and they finished comfortably clear of the relegation zone. They were a tough side that were particularly difficult to beat on their Islas Malvinas home ground. They have made a lot of changes for the start of their second season back in the top flight, several key players have departed (Cristian Fabbiani, Emmanuel Gigliotti, Sebastián Grazzini and Carlos Casteglione) however the club have brought in a number of interesting replacements too including Hugo Bargas from De Graafschap, Maxi Coronel from River Plate, Facundo Quiroga from Huracán and Carlos Salom from Olimpo.

Prediction: Comfortable mid table finish

Argentinos Juniors

Argentinos Juniors lost fewer games and conceded fewer goals than any other team in the Clausura however they also struggled to score goals, bagging only 16 in 19 games. Despite their lack of firepower they still managed to finish in 5th place and if they can build on their platform of defensive stability they could do really well in the Clausura.

Despite their strong defensive record the majority of their signings have been defensive players including left-back Pablo Barzola and Ecuadorian defended Jefferson Hurtado. The only new face in the striking department is JJ Morales from relegated Quilmes.

Prediction: If  they can keep their defensive stability and find a few more goals they could be title contenders


Arsenal

Arsenal had a rather torrid Apertura and after only managing to win three of their opening 16 games they looked as if they might even have been dragged into one of the relegation places however they rallied to win all three of their remaining fixtures.

Arsenal have brought in a number of new faces including Guillermo Burdisso from Roma, Danilo Gerlo from Quilmes and Emilio Zelaya from Banfield. Juan Cobo could be the pick of their signings after playing an important role in helping Olimpo to their shock 4th place finish in the Clausura. Most of the departing players have been sold to sides in the lower divisions however Marcos Aguirre and Cristián Álvarez have joined newly promoted San Martín de San Juan.

Arsenal have managed almost a decade at the highest level of Argentine football with threadbare squads and virtually no supporters. During the Apertura they will also be trying to recreate their astonishing 2007 Copa Sudamericana triumph.

Prediction: Bottom half of the table, but safe.


Atlético Rafaela

After two consecutive defeats in promotion playoffs in 2009 and 2010, Atlético Rafaele finally earned their promotion to the Primera División as champions of Primera B Nacional. Atlético have made a few interesting signings such as Sebastián Carerra from Asteras Tripolis, Walter Gaítan from Los Angeles Blues and Darío Gandín from Necaxa.

On paper Atletico are the best of the four promoted sides, however they seem to have done less squad building than the other three sides and some of their signings look like gambles, especially former Boca Juniors player Walter Gaítan who is returning to Argentine football after 9 years in North America.

Prediction: Bottom half of the table, battling to acquire points for the relegation dogfight in Clausura 2012.


Banfield

Banfield have blown hot and cold ever since they won their first ever Argentine league championship in Apertura 2009. They have a number of quality players, score outstanding goals and are formidable opponents on their day however they also get bogged down in long winless runs and losing streaks. Their signings include the return of their talismanic goalscoring goalkeeper Cristian Luchetti, Ezequiel Carboni from Catania, Walter Acevedo who was one of the few consistent players in the River Plate midfield last season and Rodrigo López who was one of Estudiantes' best players in their Copa Libertadores campaign.

To make way for all of these new signings Banfield have also shed a number of half decent players, Julio Barazza to Colón, Enrique Bologna to Unión, Maxi Bustos to San Martín, Gabriel Méndez to San Lorenzo, Emmanuel Pío to Tigre and Emilio Zelaya to Arsenal.

It is always tough to make predictions for sides that have extensively rebuilt their squads however I have a feeling that Banfield will do pretty well in the Clausura.

Prediction: Top half of the table, just short of the three or four sides that will challenge for the championship.


Belgrano

Belgrano were the lowest placed side of the four promoted teams however they showed good strength and determination to beat River Plate in their two legged playoff match. Their key signing is Andrés Silvera from Independiente, who will be expected to score plenty of goals. They have also brought in a few more players with Primera Division experience including Tigre midfielder Esteban González, Juan Quiroga from Colón, former Lanús and Quilmes right back Hernán Grana and 22 year old winger Federico Mancuello from Independiente.

I'm a bit disappointed to see that Martín Andrizzi was packed off to Sarmiento and wont get to enjoy his return to the Primera División, however their signings seem pretty astute and I fancy them to do quite well, especially at home.

Prediction: Comfortable mid table finish


Boca Juniors

Towards the end of the Apertura Boca Juniors were beginning to resemble a decent team for the first time in a couple of years. The credit for this should go to manager Julio César Falcioni, who managed to instill some tactical discipline on the side after a dismal start to his reign.

The big change for Boca is that they will have to learn to play without their iconic goleador Martín Palermo after his retirement, however this may be a blessing in disguise for Falcioni who now only has one player in the squad that the fans will not allow him to drop (Riquelme). The club have lost one of their legandary players but another has returned in theshape of Rolando Schiavi who was a key part of one of the best Boca Juniors teams ever between 2001 and 2005.

Other than Palermo, Boca have lost a few other players, most notably Ricardo Nior to Newell's, Cristian Cellay who has been loaned back to Estudiantes, Cristián Luchetti who returned to Banfield and Fabián Monzón to Nice in France.

The pick of the new signings is Clausura 2008 top scorer Dario Cvitanovich who could be a great signing if he can keep up his impressive career strike rate of more than a goal every other game in the various leagues he has played in. Other interesting signings include Agustín Orión and Facundo Roncaglia from Estudiantes, Nicolás Blandi from Argentinos Juniors, Matías Giminez from San Lorenzo, Leandro Gracian from Independiente and Franco Sosa from French side Lorient.

With a pragmatic manager, a talented squad and the biggest fanbase in the division it would be a surprise if Boca Juniors struggled in the Apertura. A particularly good finish could see them qualify to return to Copa Libertadores in 2012, a tournament they absolutely dominated between 2000 & 2007.

Prediction: Title contenders for most of the season, top five finish.


Colón

With Banfield and Lanús having won championships in recent years and the relegation of Gimnasia at the end of last season, Colón are probably the best side in the division never to have won the championship in the professional era. This season they will face play their first Primera Division derby against local rivals Unión since 2003.

Colón will be led once again by veteran club icon Esteban Fuertes and he will be joined by several interesting new signings most notably midfielder Tomás Costa who never really settled at Porto before having loan spells at Cluj in Romania and Universidad Cátolica in Chile. The only big name departure is that of Joaquín Larrivey who returns to Cagliari after a couple of years back in Argentina on loan deals.

Colón finished the Clausura down in 16th position after enduring a terrible run of home form. They will be hoping to make significant improvements to ensure that they stay well away from the relegation zone.

Prediction: If Tomás Costa remains injury free and plays well, Colón could make the top half of the table.


Estudiantes

After Alejandro Sabella's surprise departure at the beginning of 2011 Estudiantes slumped from being champions with an invincible home record to a team that only managed one win in 16 games between March and June. Former player and one team man Miguel Ángel Russo is the new manager and he has made several big changes to the squad. Enzo Pérez had already agreed to join Benfica before Russo had arrived, Federico Fernández has joined Napoli, goalkeeper Agustín Orión has joined Boca Juniors along with Facundo Roncaglia and forward Rodrigo Lopez has joined Banfield.

Club captain Juan Sebastian Verón is getting on a bit now but is still a magical player, their season could depend on whether he can stay fit.

The most notable of their new signings are goalkeeper Justo Villar from Villarreal, Mariano González from Porto, Facundo Coria from Pachuca. Several former players are making their return to Estudiantes, Mauro Boselli comes back after a poor stint in Europe, veteran midfielder Diego Gavilan is back for a third stint with the club, Cristian Cellay returns from Boca Juniors and Damian Albil is back from his loan spell at San Lorenzo.

It may take him some time to rebuild morale at the club, however Russo seems like the best man for the job and I can't see him failing to improve on their dismal 13th place finish in the Clausura.

Prediction: Top half of the table

Godoy Cruz

Godoy Cruz are the provincial minnows that continue to surprise. They have developed an enjoyable attacking style, have recorded three consecutive top five finishes and have qualified to play at the continental level for only the second time in their history after last season's Copa Libertadores campaign.

The team have probably had the quietest transfer window with few big name arrivals or departures. I hope they stick with their high scoring attacking philosophy however I think they may struggle to compete on two fronts, if they progress in Copa Sudamericana their league form may suffer, however an early exit could also damage their confidence.

Prediction: Top half of the table, possibly a 4th consecutive top five finish


Independiente

Independiente are an unpredictable side, they finished 20th and last in Apertura 2010 but won Copa Sudamerica 2010, in Clausura 2011 they made significant improvements domestically but flopped out of Copa Libertadores at the group stage. During the Apertura Independiente will benefit from a bye to the quarter-finals of Copa Sudamericana as reigning champions, meaning that they will only face the distraction of a maximum of six continental games.

The club have made a number of interesting signings including Ernesto Farías from Cruzeiro, Osmar Ferreyra from Ukranian side Dnipro, Marco Pérez from Zaragoza and the relatively unknown Uruguayan defender Adrían Argachá. Making way are Andrés Silvera who joins Belgrano, Lucas Mareque to French side Lorient, Leandro Gracián to Boca Juniors and winger Federico Mancuello who will join Silvera at Belgrano.

Independiente finished 6th in the Clausura and had the third best scoring record with 30 goals. If they can tighten up the defence a bit and avoid getting too badly distracted by Copa Sudamericana they could end up as championship contenders.

Prediction: Top half of the table, championship contenders if things go well.


Lanús

In Gabriel Schürrer's first full tournament as manager Lanús put in a blistering finish to the season with an eleven game unbeaten run before a home defeat in the penultimate game against Argentinos Juniors handed Vélez Sársfield the championship.

After a massive squad restructuring during the January transfer window it is quite a surprise to see no major transfer activity at Lanús before the Apertura. Diego Braghieri joins from Rosario Central, Matías Fritzler returns from a season long loan at Hércules in Spain and Cristián Menendez returns from his loan spell at Emelec.

Prediction: One of the tournament favourites


Newell's Old Boys

Newell's had a dismal Clausura spending most of the season at the bottom of the table only to leapfrog Huracán to secure 19th place. They conceded far too many goals and only two teams scored fewer goals than the Rosario giants.

Although Newell's have cleared out a lot of "dead wood" from their over sized squad none of their new signings look particularly inspirational. Probably the most significant change is the departure of Rolando Schiavi and his replacement at centre-back by Hernán Pellerano from Almería. Uruguayan Carmelo Valencia has been brought in from Ulsan Hyundai Motors in Japan to strengthen the attack and their other attacking signings include Diego Torres from relegated Quilmes and Boca Juniors cast-off Ricardo Noir.

Prediction: 15th-20th place


Olimpo

Olimpo put in an amazing display to finish 4th in the Clausura and haul themselves out of the relegation places however they have lost several of their key players over the close-season; Nicolás Bianchi Arce to San Lorenzo, Ezequiel Maggiolo to Tigre, Martín Aguirre to River Plate, Juan Cobo to Arsenal, Marcelo Mosset to Atlético Tucumán, Roberto Brum to Argentinos Juniors and Diego Gavilán who has gone back for a third stint at Estudiantes.

Their new look midfield could feature new faces Adrián Lucero, Leonel Ríos and Ariel Rosada who look like the pick of their signings.

Prediction: A big struggle, 15th-20th place.


Racing Club

At the beginning of the Clausura Racing Club played some of the best football I've seen from them in my decade long obsession with Argentine football however they slumped badly in the back end of the season, finishing down in 15th place. Manager Miguel Ángel Russo left to take over at Estudiantes and has been replaced by Diego Simeone who is returning to the club at which he made his managerial debut back in 2006. He is the only manager in the division to have won the Primera with two different clubs, however he also played a big role in landing River Plate in their first ever bottom of the table finish the season after leading them the championship.

Racing have not made many signings but Agustín Pelletieri and Sebastian Saja look like potentially useful signings so Simeone looks to be working with virtually the same squad that played blistering football during Argentine spring but turgid dross as winter approached. Racing are an unpredictable side and Simeone is an unpredictable manager, I could imagine him leading Racing to their first championship in a decade to become only the 3rd manager to win it with three different teams (after José Yudica and Américo Gallego), but almost certainly not this season, so the club will have to give him time.

Prediction: 6th-10th place

San Lorenzo

After Ramón Diaz' second stint as San Lorenzo manager ended with a five game winless streak they brought in Omar Asad, who had worked miracles at Godoy Cruz before an unsuccessful stint with Emelec of Ecuador. He didn't manage to turn things around and they finished the Clausura in 14th after a seven game winless streak.

Asad has made a significant number of changes to the squad; Nicolás Bianche Arce comes in from Olimpo, Emmanuel Giggliotti from All Boys, Gabriel Méndez from Banfield and Berardo Romeo is back at the club after his stint at Quilmes ended in relegation.

Asad is an astute manager and he should make improvements if given the time, if results are not forthcoming the board may lose patience.

Prediction: Mid table


San Matín (SJ)

San Martín won promotion through a playoff win against a dismal Gimnasia side, despite having finished above Belgrano in Primera B Nacional, I see them as the weakest of the four promoted sides. A lot will depend on how their new signings will bed into the squad. Some of them look like potentially great signings including former Lanús player Marcos Aguirre will bring a lot of Primera División experience as will Maximiliano Bustos of Banfield. Nestor Ayala was a useful player at Tigre between 2007 & 2010 and Raul Saavedra looked a useful left-back for the other San Martín (de Tucumán) back in 2008-09, his only Primera División goal since 2005 was an absolutely blistering strike against Boca Juniors in 2009.

If the new signings work out for them, San Martín could prove me spectacularly wrong, but I think they are set to struggle badly for points and find themselves in or near the drop zone by the end of the Apertura.


Prediction: 15th-20th


Tigre

In Denis Straqualursi Tigre had the most effective striker of the 2010-11 season, they have managed to keep hold of him and have added veteran striker Ezequiel Maggiolo to the attack, an intriguing pairing that could work well together. They will need to do well as Tigre kick off the 2011-12 season with the worst points average of any of the established teams meaning that if they do not prosper they will find themselves embroiled in the relegation dogfight.

Tigre have also signed a number of other decent looking players including Emmanuel Pío from Banfield, Carlos Luna from Liga de Quiro, Walter Vílchez from Sporting Cristal and Carlos Casteglione from All Boys.

Prediction: Bottom half of the table


Unión

Unión have endured a long wait to return to the Primera División and will be striving to avoid an immediate return to the lower leagues. They have made a number of signings to strengthen the squad for the coming season bringing in Jerónimo Barrales and Enrique Bologna who both have Primera División experience with Banfield, Rodrigo Erramuspe who has some top flight experience with Lanús, Uruguayan Fabricio Núñez who was a bit part player for Godoy Cruz last season, Juan Pablo Pereyra who has top flight experience with Atlético Tucumán and Estudiantes and ex-Southampton flop Marcelo Sarmiento who has played top flight football with Talleres, Olimpo and Argentinos Juniors.

Unión already had a fairly strong squad so the fact that they have made no marquee signings doesn't bode too badly.

Prediction: 10th-15th place


Vélez Sársfield

The reigning champions have lost two of their key players from last season, Ricky Alvarez has gone to Inter and Maxi Moralez has also departed for Italy to join Atalanta. The only additions to the squad are Alejandro Cabral who has returned from his loan spell at Legia Warsaw and Leandro Velázquaz who spent last season on loan at Newell's Old Boys.

Despite losing two important players, Vélez still look like the team to beat in the Argentine Primera División.

Prediction: Championship favourites



Conclusions


Velez, Boca Juniors, Independiente and Lanús as the four most likely winners. Argentinos Juniors, Godoy Cruz and Banfield are the dark horses.

Olimpo, Atlético Rafaela, San Martín and Tigre to find themselves in the relegation places by the end of the Apertura and Newell's Old Boys to have another stinker of a season.

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