By DAVID MOSSE
Even Boca Juniors players expressed amazement this week at the predicament in which archrvials River Plate find themselves, fighting for top-flight survival with just two rounds remaining this season. Los Millonarios are now winless in five league games and no longer control their own destiny heading into Sunday's matchup with Estudiantes (3 p.m.).
River manager Juan Jose Lopez continues to shuffle the deck in search of the right lineup, as Diego Buonanotte has been left out of the squad altogether. Leandro Caruso, who notched the equalizer in last week's 1-1 draw with Atletico Colon eight minutes from time, will be the lone striker with Erik Lamela (pictured above) expected to provide all the inspiration in an ultra-defensive setup.
Estudiantes is currently 11th in the table, and manager Eduardo Berizzo recently called it quits, but the good news is that several injured players will be returning for the clash with River Plate, including Gaston Fernandez and Rodrigo Lopez, so don't be surprised if Los Pincharratas sink River even further.
Here's a look ahead to the other important matches in South America this weekend:
Atletico Huracan vs. Velez Sarsfield, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Velez Sarsfield seemed poised to pay the price for exerting so much energy in the Copa Libertadores, but Ricardo Gareca's side is back on track for the Clausura title after knocking off Godoy Cruz, 2-0, last Monday. El Fortin enters this round one point ahead of Lanus with a tricky road fixture against Atletico Huracan coming up on Sunday, and Gareca is confident in his team.
Juan Manuel Martinez scored a sensational goal against his former team last week, while David Ramirez also found the back of the net. Ricky Alvarez continues to provide much of the inspiration, and Santiago Silva bounced back from a nightmarish performance opposite Penarol in the Libertadores to turn in a solid effort. Silva figures to give Huracan defenders some trouble.
Boca Juniors vs. Atletico Banfield, Sunday, 7:20 p.m.
Boca Juniors has been in the news this week because of its pursuit of Real Madrid midfielder Fernando Gago, while everyone in Argentina continues to celebrate the exploits of Martin Palermo, who is closing in on the end of his career. Palermo found the back of the net last Sunday in a 2-2 draw with Quilmes, becoming the fifth leading scorer in the history of Argentinian domestic soccer.
Julio Cesar Falcioni's side is still in the hunt for a Copa Sudamericana spot, so the focus this weekend will be on knocking off Atletico Banfield at La Bombonera. Los Xeneizes welcome back Juan Roman Riquelme, who was sidelined with an abdominal injury, so less of the onus offensively will fall on Pablo Mouche and Cristian Chavez, who supplied Boca's other goal against Quilmes.
Sao Paulo vs. Gremio, Saturday, 5:30 p.m., GOLTV
Sao Paulo was very fortunate to come away with a 1-0 victory over Atletico Mineiro last time out after being outplayed for most of the match, but Paulo Cesar Carpegiani's side is in first place with three wins in as many games. Lucas made it back in time from international duty to start against Atletico, but fellow youngster Casemiro actually produced the winning goal early in the first half.
Next up is another highly-anticipated clash with Gremio, which knocked off Bahia last week thanks to two goals from Junior Vicosa. Dagoberto has been in terrific form for Sao Paulo and is currently negotiating a new contract with the club, while Douglas and Fabio Rochemback are the key figures in the midfield for Gremio, where this matchup between quality teams will likely be won.
Corinthians vs. Fluminense, Sunday, 3 p.m.
The long wait is over for Fluminense, as manager Abel Braga finally assumes control of the team, and Braga takes over a side brimming with confidence. Rafael Moura scored twice in a 2-1 win over Cruzeiro last week that vaulted Fluminense near the top of the standings, and Fred returns from international duty determined to prove he deserved his spot in Brazil's Copa America squad.
Veteran midfielder Deco has also been very impressive so far, while Dario Conca will be counted on to provide inspiration. Corinthians is second in the table after snatching a 1-1 draw away to Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro last week thanks in large part to goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Liedson is an injury doubt with a knee problem, so the onus offensively could fall on playmaker Jorge Henrique.
La Equidad vs. Atletico Nacional, Sunday, 6:30 p.m.
The 2011 Apertura championship is a rematch of the 2007 final in which Atletico Nacional came out on top, but Alexis Garcia has built a rock-solid team that is unbeaten in the playoffs. Nacional finished with more points than La Equidad in the regular season, and will host the second leg, so Los Aseguradores need a good result on Sunday. Striker Wilberto Cosme will be counted on to provide the inspiration once again.
Cosme scored both goals in the 2-1 win over Deportivo Millonarios in the second leg of the semifinal, but he faces a challenge in Nacional goalkeeper Gaston Pezzuti. El Verde counters offensively with talented midfielders Dorlan Pabon and John Valencia. Pabon impressed last time out against Deportes Tolima, and offers the best hope for Nacional to snatch an away goal.
Who do you see winning the River Plate-Estudiantes match? What match-up are you most looking forward to seeing? Who do you see winning the Colombian final?
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