The return of River Plate to top-flight action provides the main talking point ahead of Argentina’s new league championship, the Torneo Inicial, which begins this Friday when reigning champions Arsenal step out against Union de Santa Fe.With few obvious favourites, the fight for the title is expected to be tight and tense, while some of the candidates will need to keep an eye on their points averages to ensure they are not sucked into a relegation battle. sets the scene for the new league season in Argentina.

The champions
While Gustavo Alfaro has managed to hold on to most of the squad that earned Arsenal their maiden league title, he has had to part with centre-half Guillermo Burdisso and front man Luciano Leguizamon. Nor will he have the surprise factor in his favour this time around. Having quietly climbed out of the relegation mire before beating everyone to the line last season, Arsenal are now marked men.

Maintaining a low-key approach, Alfaro has made a handful of unheralded signings, though the defending champions will be pushovers for no one. “We’re aiming to be up there again,” he said. “I hope we can retain the title, though I’ll be happy if we can finish in the top five.”

The challengers
Despite the departure of several valuable assets, chief among them Juan Roman Riquelme, Boca Juniors still have the squad to make the league crown theirs again. The combination of quality players and a clearly defined gameplan has brought them a title win and a third place in the last two league tournaments, and there seems little doubt that Julio Falcioni’s men will be in the mix again.

The same is true of Velez Sarsfield, Lanus and Tigre, who have the resources to push for the title despite overhauling their squads. The Avellaneda twosome of Racing Club and Independiente have also made a number of wise incursions into the transfer market, leaving their respective coaches, Luis Zubeldia and Christian Diaz, with the task of concocting a winning blend and staking a claim to glory.

Given their relatively low points average, Independiente face a different task altogether, while Newell’s Old Boys, San Lorenzo and River Plate will also need to keep one eye on the relegation situation. Led by former France striker David Trezeguet, who is of Argentinian extraction, and coached by Matias Almeyda, Los Millonarios will be expected to push for the top, however.

Did you know?
While the Argentinian league season is still split into two tournaments, now renamed the Torneo Inicial and the Torneo Final, with a trophy awarded to the winners of each, the difference this season is that the two victors will go forward to contest a play-off to decide the overall champion, or Supercampeón. At the other end of the table, meanwhile, the points average system remains in place, although the number of sides that will be relegated directly at the end of the season will increase from two to three, with the relegation/promotion play-offs against second division sides having now been scrapped.

Star signings
The biggest moves of the close season were the respective returns of Albiceleste internationals Maxi Rodriguez and Diego Placente to Newell’s Old Boys and Argentinos Juniors, the clubs where they started out as youngsters, and the arrival of goalkeeper Oscar Ustari at Boca Juniors. Also reappearing on the Argentinian scene are two well-known faces in Colombian midfielder Fabian Vargas and Paraguayan defender Claudio Morel Rodriguez, who made their names with Boca and will now be running out for Independiente.

There were plenty of moves in the domestic market too, most notably FIFA World Cup™ winner Mauro Camoranesi’s switch to Racing Club, Mario Barovero’s to River, Luciano Leguizamon’s to Independiente and Sebastian Sosa’s to Velez.

The stat
- The number of years since Argentinian football last staged an end-of-season final to determine its champion team. On that occasion, and in contrast to the current system, the winners of the two league championships – Marcelo Bielsa’s Newell’s and Boca Juniors –  were not proclaimed champions of their respective tournaments, with the 1990/91 title going solely to the latter after they beat Boca on penalties at the Bombonera.

What they said
“We’re setting our sights high at River and we’re not thinking about the 50 points we need to avoid problems with the relegation averages. The aim is to do a good job and take the club to where it deserves to be. We’ve got some high-quality players, especially among the youngsters, who’ve come on a lot and now have the opportunity to kick on in the first division. Expectations are high,” River Plate forward and captain David Trezeguet.