Want real drama? Check Argentina
Here's a news flash: Some of you may not be Manchester United or Chelsea fans.
So with the attention of most of the soccer world centered on Wednesday's Champions League final, a small portion of you might be asking yourselves, "What else is going on out there?"
For those of you who would rather tune in to anything else other than the events at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium (yes, you, Liverpool fans), here's a suggestion: Check out the thrilling conclusion to the the Argentine Clausura Championship, one of the most competitive contests still going. Here's how it will unfold in the coming weeks:
A thrilling season
The usual fan violence aside, it has been a captivating season, particularly because the competition has been extremely even. With only four rounds remaining, the race is still wide open, and six teams have a good shot at winning the title -- they're all separated by only six points.
What has generated huge interest around the country is that four of Buenos Aires' "big five" clubs are on track for the title for a change. (Click here for a look at the Clausura 2008 standings.)
Perhaps the greatest achievement has been the quality of soccer, which has picked up a great deal when compared to last season. This has much to do with the fact that the majority of the teams in the First Division were reinforced with lots of talent. The soccer has consistently been skilful, dynamic and exciting.
If we had to pick out the season's star performer so far, we couldn't look past Juan Sebastián Verón. While two of his former clubs battle it out in Moscow, "La Brujita" has guided his first club back home, Estudiantes de La Plata, to the top of the table. And even though he has suffered from injuries, he continues to be the club's main inspiration. Verón has looked more motivated than ever, and if D.C. United -- or any other MLS team -- manages to snap him up this summer, it will definitely get its money's worth.
Teams in the running
Tiny Lanús may have won the Apertura Championship last year, but this season's title will end up in the hands of one of the big guns. Estudiantes (33 points), River Plate (31) and Boca Juniors (29) have demonstrated they're all up to the challenge, while San Lorenzo, Independiente and Vélez Sarsfield still have an outside chance.
Most of these teams spent big money in the transfer market, and the effort has paid dividends: It has set up an intriguing climax that is likely to be won by the team that handles the pressure best. Traditionally this team is Boca, but what may affect the club's title aspirations this season is its participation in the Copa Libertadores. Boca's main priority is Latin America's biggest club tournament, and it will do whatever it takes to lift the title for a record seventh time, even if it jeopardizes its league performance.
In its last-gasp 2-1 victory over Racing Club at the Bombonera last Saturday, Boca fielded a complete reserve side thinking about Wednesday's vital Libertadores clash with Atlas in Guadalajara. But if Boca is eliminated by the Mexicans, it will turn its attention back to the Clausura.
Easiest title run-in
With Huracán, Colón, Olimpo and Banfield as its opponents, River Plate has the easiest close to the season -- on paper, at least. Los Millonarios couldn't win the title in their previous eight attempts (mainly because of Daniel Passarella's negative tactics), but they have a great opportunity to put their misery behind them this season.
Diego Simeone counts with an incredibly talented squad, with the likes of Radamel Falcao García, Sebastián Abreu and Diego Buonanotte in the attack. The 20-year-old Buonanotte has been particularly impressive -- the tiny, 5-foot-3 attacking midfielder has the ability to penetrate any defense, and is destined for a very bright future with the Argentine national team.
River's defense has also been very effective this season: It has conceded the fewest amount of goals in the league, with only nine, and its stability has benefited the whole team.
San Lorenzo also has a decent road, as Colón, Olimpo, Banfield and Gimnasia de Jujuy are all winnable games. But what plays against it is the fact that it currently trails league leader Estudiantes by five points. The absence of a suspended Andrés D'Alessandro for the clash with Colón could also be a determining factor.
The eventual winner
Estudiantes has a huge advantage over everyone (except for River), and that's a big deal with such little time remaining this season. Verón & Co. should pick up at least eight points from their final four matches, while River should finish off the season undefeated: three wins and one draw (10 points).
If that happens, both teams will be tied with 41 points, and the champion will be decided by a dream playoff match at a neutral venue.
In the '06 Apertura Championship, Estudiantes beat Boca for the title that way. On this occasion, it should be River's turn -- the title finally appears to be in its reach.