Argentina’s 2011 Apertura roars into action on Friday, with River Plate absent from top-flight proceedings for the first time ever and reigning champions Velez Sarsfield, Boca Juniors and Estudiantes heading the list of title candidates.

Waiting to outdo them, however, are a clutch of less-fancied clubs who have featured prominently in recent seasons and have every chance of mounting another challenge. looks ahead to what promises to be another unpredictable championship race in Argentina.

The champions
Velez Sarsfield have had a solid and reliable core of players in place for several seasons now, and Ricardo Gareca’s charges can rightly be considered genuine candidates again this term. The only question mark is how much the departures of Maximiliano Moralez and Ricardo Alvarez, two key figures in their Clausura win, will affect their creative capacities. Up front, however, they have held on to the services of Santiago Silva and Juan Manuel Martinez, who are almost unanimously regarded as the best strike duo in Argentinian football.

The challengers
Despite underperforming last time out, Miguel Angel Russo’s Estudiantes should be in the frame after bringing in some quality players over the close season. Boca Juniors have also been recruiting wisely, and with star midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme back to full fitness, they can be expected to push for honours.

2011 Clausura runners-up Lanus have a squad capable of going all the way, and the experienced they gained in going close last time ought to stand them in good stead. Nor can Godoy Cruz, who enjoyed a surprisingly good Clausura campaign, be discounted from the title chase, while Racing Club will be hoping the arrival of Diego Simeone in the dugout can inspire Colombian front men Giovanni Moreno and Teofilo Gutierrez to keep on delivering. Elsewhere, Argentinos Juniors, Independiente and Banfield could all have something to say as the season unfolds.

Did you know?
The Apertura champions will join Velez, the winners of the last Clausura, in the 2012 Copa Libertadores. Lining up with them will be the two teams who finish first and second in the aggregate points table for the season as a whole, provided that these two teams are not one of the champions.

Big-name signings
Estudiantes have been more active than most in the transfer market, drafting in Paraguay’s international goalkeeper Justo Villar and bringing the 2009 Copa Libertadores top scorer Mauro Boselli back home. Boca and Colon have also snapped up some quality striking talent from Europe, Los Xeneizes luring Dario Cvitnich to La Bombonera, and the Santa Fe outfit acquiring the services of the experienced Uruguayan Javier Chevanton. 

One of the biggest pre-season moves was the return of Gabriel Milito to Independiente, the club where he began his career. Colon and Arsenal also picked up some central-defensive talent from across the Atlantic, respectively purchasing Guillermo Burdisso, brother of Argentina international Nicolas, from Roma, and Maximiliano Pellegrino from Cesena. Banfield hopped across the River Plate to sign former Uruguay centre-half and Korea/Japan 2002 veteran Alejandro Lembo. Old foes Lanus took the same route, convincing promising Charrúa midfielder Mauricio Pereyra to sign on the dotted line.

The stat
- The number of seasons the province of Cordoba had gone without having a team in the Argentinian First Division. The birthplace of national legends such as Mario Kempes, Pablo Aimar and Javier Pastore, Cordoba is represented this season by Atletico Belgrano, who were the last club to fly the flag for the province in the top flight before being relegated in 2006/07.

What they said
“The team’s looking good, the new players are happy, and I’m excited about our chances of having a good season. The key will be to stay in the hunt from start to finish. We dropped right off the pace at the start of the Clausura, and from the midway point on we had to depend on what Velez were doing. A club as big as ours should only ever depend on itself,” Boca Juniors playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme.

Have your say
Which teams do you think will be fighting for the title, and which players do you think will shine this season?