Up in the remote north western province of Jujuy, on 19th May, a 16-minute hat-trick sealed a return to the top flight for one of the sleeping giants of Argentinian football after three years in the wilderness.
As Javier Toledo netted his third – a delicious lofted finish from 25 yards – to confirm Rosario Central’s automatic promotion, manager Miguel Angel Russo’s smile on the touchline spoke a thousand words; the relief and delight simultaneously palpable. “We have suffered a lot”, Russo said afterwards. “We dedicate this to all the fans of Central.”
For a city that has football in its veins, a three-year absence has been particularly tough for the yellow and blue half of Rosario. In 2010, following a series of below par seasons, Central found themselves pitted against All Boys in a relegation play-off and were duly beaten 4-1 on aggregate, dropping out of the Primera for only the fourth time in their history.
Any notions of bouncing straight back were swiftly crushed as Central could only manage a mid-table finish in a transitional first season in the B Nacional. Under Juan Antonio Pizzi, Central were challenging for the title in a competitive second season – eventually finishing third behind River Plate and Quilmes – but they once again suffered heartbreak in the play-offs, failing to beat Facundo Sava’s San Martin de San Juan.
This year proved for third time lucky for Central, now under the guidance of the experienced Russo, as they overcame a poor start of 13 points from the first 12 games to embark on a historic 12 consecutive league victories. Just one defeat in their next ten saw Russo’s men maintain their stranglehold at the top, before the 3-0 win away to Gimnasia Jujuy completed their long-awaited return to the Primera with five games to spare.
Well known for having among the most passionate fans in the whole of Argentina, tens of thousands of the Central faithful duly gathered, as is tradition, by the National Flag Memorial on the shores of the Parana to celebrate long into the night. Their boisterous presence will be certainly be a welcome addition to the top flight next season.
An added dimension to their return is the tantalising prospect of a renewal of the ‘Clasico Rosarino’ against bitter rivals Newell’s Old Boys. The biggest derby outside of Buenos Aires, the history of the tie stretches as far back as 1905 when the two sides first met and will be the most anticipated fixture of the upcoming season, perhaps even overshadowing the Superclasico given the rather dull encounters of late.
Such is the significance of this clash that both clubs’ nicknames derive from an incident during one such contest. When Central refused to take part in a friendly game for a leprosy charity, they earned the sobriquet “Las Canallas” – literally the scoundrels – while Newell’s have been commonly known as “Los Leprosos” (the Lepers) ever since.
A victory against their cross-city rivals may well be a big ask for Las Canallas though, as Newell’s are arguably the best side in Argentina at present. Transformed from relegation candidates to title contenders since the arrival of club legend Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino in early 2012, Newell’s are going strong in both the league, the Copa Libertadores and the Copa Argentina as they aim for an unprecedented treble.
After a barnstorming start to the Torneo Inicial, they seemed to run out of gas and a spate of draws saw them pipped to the title by Velez Sarsfield. This has not been the case during the Torneo Final as Martino has expertly juggled his squad to deal with the rigours of competing on three fronts. In Ignacio Scocco they have the most lethal marksman in Argentina, ably supplied by a fluid midfield that regularly bosses possession with their now trademark high-intensity style.
With five games remaining, Newell’s sit top ahead of Lanus and River Plate, and remain one of the favourites for the title in what would be a fitting farewell to Martino, who is set to depart in the summer.
In the meantime, there is still work to be done for Central as they look to finish the season strongly and go about preparing for life back in the big time – back where they belong as far as their sizable and passionate fanbase are concerned. As their most famous of supporters Che Guevara once said: “Hasta la victoria, siempre!”
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