River Plate aiming to reverse fortunes at home

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

Back home it's the middle of winter, the economy is in the tank and the scrutiny is intense.

So for River Plate of Argentina, getting an opportunity to hold their training camp in Canada could not have come at a better time.

The giants of South American soccer arrived in town on Thursday, will face English Premier League side Everton tonight at 7:30 at Commonwealth Stadium.

The club will then stick around for a week, preparing for their upcoming domestic season.

"One of the reasons we came was for the climate, because right now in Buenos Aires it's too cold," said River Plate manager Nestor Gorosito.

"Here in Edmonton there are very good practice fields.In Argentina there is an economic crisis among the soccer teams, and to have training camp there is very expensive.

"We were contracted to come to Canada to play three exhibition games and because of that, our pre-season training turns out to be free."

The club, founded in 1901, has won 33 Argentine league championships and two South American titles.

However, they struggled last season, finishing eighth in the Argentine Clausura.

A middle of the table finish is simply not acceptable among their loyal following, and the pressure is on to turn things around quickly.

Getting out of Dodge allows the team to regroup away from the media spotlight.

"Without a doubt, it's important to try to get back on top," said River Plate defender Cristian Villagra.

"River is a team always battling for titles. There can be a lot of pressure playing for the team, but we welcome it and we're excited about the challenge this upcoming season."

The Millionariers, as they're known at home, begin their new season on August 16. Tonight's encounter against Everton is one of three games they'll play on this Canadian tour.

They defeated Toronto FC in a penalty shootout on Wednesday and will take on the Montreal Impact on Aug. 4.

Originally they were going to hold their training camp in Montreal, but changed plans after seeing the facilities at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park.

"In reality, it's a beautiful country," said forward Mauro Rosales.

"I didn't really know much about Edmonton. I was familiar with the bigger cities in Canada like Toronto and Vancouver. But this facility here is great. They have great fields, they have great exercise facilities and the weather is fantastic.

"We have everything we need in order to prepare for the upcoming season."

This year the team is expected to be bolstered by the return of two Argentine stars in Marcelo Gallardo and Ariel Ortega. Both are veterans of the national team and have played in the World Cup.

Ortega is expected to play tonight, while Gallardo will sit out, still recovering from a sport hernia surgery in July.

"Ortega and Gallardo are very important players in Argentine soccer," Gorosito said. "Not just for River but for the whole country.

"Gallardo is coming back from injury, so we have bring him back slowly, so by the time he gets to Montreal he can play."

Also expected to be absent from River Plate's lineup is Diego Buonanotte.

The young up-and-coming star is rumoured to be on his way out of Argentina on a lucrative transfer.

A member of Argentina's gold-medal winning team at the Beijing Olympics, the 21-year-old midfielder is currently in town with the team.

"Buonanotte is not playing because we have to take care of him because there is a possibility that he'll be transferred," Gorosito said.

"We can't risk playing him and having him get hurt. It would be a big gamble."

Having players move on to bigger clubs is a way of life in Argentina, even for teams like River Plate. However, there never seems to be a shortage of talent waiting to take the place of the departed stars.

"It's not ideal," Gorosito said.

"It's tough to obtain the ideal in everyday life. But you have to find your way between the ideal and the possible.

"There is a good possibility that three of our players (Oscar) Ahumada, (Paulo) Ferrari and Buonanotte will be transferred. It's the way things are, but we deal with it the best we can."

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WHO TO WATCH

RIVER PLATE

Ariel Ortega: Former member of Argentine national team and World Cup veteran, is expected to make his debut with the club this season.

Cristian Villagra: Defender, acquired in January 2007, is growing in stature at the club and has caught the eye of the Argentine national team.

EVERTON

Philip Neville: Former Manchester United stalwart, the defender is now captain of Everton, helping them get to the FA Cup final last year.

Tim Howard: American goaltender backstopped the U.S. to a stunning defeat of Spain in the semifinal of the Confederation Cup tournament in June.


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