If a martian was to land on Planet Earth, it could be forgiven for not knowing that football exists in Argentina, outside of Buenos Aires. But, it does, and in the second city of Cordoba, 400 miles north-west of the capital, more than 52,000 spectators packed the Estadio Kempes to see the local derby on Saturday afternoon. The two sides, Belgrano and Talleres, could not be separated and played out a breathless 1-1 draw.
The moods in the respective camps couldn’t have been more different going into the game. Belgrano, who have been campaigning in Argentina’s top flight since 2011 when they shocked the nation by demoting River Plate in the promotion/relegation play-off, have endured a torrid time of late. Los Piratas haven’t won back-to-back games since September and currently occupy 29th position in the 30 team league. They are suffering from a severe lack of investment and poor recruitment. Their president, Armando Pérez, has taken his eye off the ball over the last couple of years to focus on his role with the national federation (AFA). A managerial merry-go-round has seen the club appoint their third manager of the season in the week leading up to this game.
Talleres, on the other hand, are flying and have the momentum from two successive promotions behind them. El Matador have picked up where they left off last season, sitting comfortably in tenth place and looking good for Copa Sudamericana qualification. Talleres have only lost two of their last 14 competitive encounters, and this impressive run includes a five-match winning streak towards the back-end of 2016. Despite being second best during their recent trip to Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera, Talleres even managed to come away with the full three points.
The two clubs have their own, smaller stadiums, but share the Kempes for more important games such as this. This fixture was Belgrano’s ‘home’ fixture, and more than 52,000 of their fans packed the stands. There were no Talleres fans in attendance, due to AFA rules which prohibit away supporters, caused by a long-standing culture of hooliganism and organised crime in the stands. The stadium was bouncing before kick-off with singing, blue smoke filling the air, and ticker tape raining down from the stands. Few countries do atmosphere like Argentina. Almost fifteen years to the day since the last league encounter between the two sides, the fans can be forgiven for anticipating this clash with such fervour.
As is typical of derby games, this one started with the feel of the last ten minutes of a cup tie. Tackles flew in and the momentum swung like a pendulum, with each side taking it in turns to raid into opposition territory. When the match settled down, Talleres took control as expected, knocking the ball about comfortably at the back before launching dangerous counterattacks. The ageless Pablo Guiñazú, now 38, sitting in front of the back four, extinguishing any Belgrano attacks and starting most of his team’s moves. Emanuel Reynoso was bright going forward for La T; the 21-year-old has been likened in style to Juan Román Riquelme and is tipped for a potential move to Europe before long. Belgrano’s new manager, Sebastián Méndez, was like in a jack-in-the-box trying to drive his team on from the technical area. Despite the ferocious play, there were few clear cut chances and the teams went in at the interval at 0-0.
First blood was drawn 20 minutes into the second half, and it came as no surprise that it was Talleres who opened the scoring. Indecision in the Belgrano midfield on was pounced upon, and Reynoso set up a three-versus-two attack. The ball eventually fell to Johnathan Menéndez, who coolly finished past Belgrano ‘keeper Lucas Costa. The 22-year-old stopper has been in impressive form in the Belgrano sticks since replacing club icon Juan Carlos Olave, who retired at the end of 2016. However, he had no chance with this finish and the credit has to go to the attacker. Belgrano’s defence looked uninterested; players were slow to get back and one even committed the cardinal defensive sin of standing with his arm in the air, praying for an offside call that never came.
Understandably the home crowd became restless and a couple of wayward passes were met with loud jeers. Yet the players didn’t give up. After 77 minutes Belgrano hit the post, and following a messy goalmouth scramble captain Guillermo Farré smashed the ball home to a rapturous roar. Although there were chances after that, I got the impression that both sides
were happy with 1-1 and that was to be the end of the goalmouth action. The statistics favoured Talleres, who enjoyed 69 per cent of possession and completed 533 passes to Belgrano’s 180.
Despite being second-from-bottom in the table Belgrano are in no danger of relegation this season due to Argentina’s complicated promedio system which calculates an average of teams’ points gained over the last three seasons. However, they could be in real danger of dropping out of the top flight next season if this poor form continues so the focus in the remaining 11 games, with a new manager at the helm, should be to turn the fortunes around, restore some pride and set the tone for next season. Talleres, meanwhile, will look to continue in the same vein, qualify for continental competition, and cement their burgeoning reputation as a team to keep an eye on.