It's hard to believe it's been six months since he last appeared, but between the summer break and his recovery from knee surgery, Boca Juniors' Juan Roman Riquelme hasn't seen the pitch since Boca's 1-2 loss to Huracán on May 9. While the club has enjoyed a relative improvement with him out, sitting mid-table after a horrible 16th place in the Clausura, it's tempting to ask where the blue and gold would sit if they had their orchestrator for the Apertura.
This Saturday, Riquelme is set to make his return when Boca hosts Clausura champions Argentinos Juniors. While he may start on the bench, Riquelme's return is already raising expectations of a fanbase that has been their club finish in the league's bottom half every tournament since winning their Apertura championship in 2008.
Those are expectations coach Claudio Borghi is looking to temper.
"It would be unfair to ask Riquelme to solve all the problems," Borghi told reporters after a team practice.
If Boca had Riquelme all season, they would not be competing with Estudiantes, the Primera's leaders who are 10 points in the distance. However, given the changes the team's made since the Clausura, Riquelme's health may be the only thing keeping a mid-table side from an upper-table finish.
Coach Claudio Borghi, hired prior to the Apertura, has been most influential change, helping to organize a remodeled Boca defense. The Argentine giants brought in Clemente Rodriguez (from Estudiantes), Juan Insaurralde (Newell's Old Boys) and Matías Caruzzo (Argentinos) and shifted to a formation featuring three at the back. As a result, Borghi's reduced the team's rate of goals allowed from a league-worst 1.84 (35 in 19 matches in the Clausura) to 1.17 (14 in 12).
That improvement has been balanced by stagnation in attack. Had Riquelme been around to combine with Cristian Chávez and Villareal import Damien Escudero behind Martín Pelermo, the team may have avoided a slight drop in goal rate. Boca's production has dropped from to 1.47 goals per match in the Clausura to this tournament's 1.25.
Judging by the enthusiasm of Borghi, who has yet have his best player healthy during his short Boca tenure, Riquelme is that special kind of player who can turn an attack around:
"It's the first time I'm going to coach someone I admire, one of those you can say 'This one really is good'," Borghi said anticipating Riquelme's comeback from a six-month injury lay-off.
Riquelme, now 32-years-old, is set to take part in his seventh Primera tournament since his 2007 return from Spain. There he played for Barcelona and, more notably, Villareal before returning to lead Boca to the 2007 Copa Libertadores. Boca would win the subsequent Argentine Apertura before falling upon hard times, failing to qualify for this years' Libertadores or Sudamericana.