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Soccer-Top players rely on Argentine league for World Cup

Reuters

By Rex Gowar

Feb 5 (Reuters) - Boca Juniors duo Fernando Gago and Agustin Orion and Newell's Old Boys' Maxi Rodriguez and Ever Banega have more than the Argentine league title to play for in the Final championship that kicks off this weekend.

They all want to be part of Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella's World Cup squad in Brazil, while River Plate's Colombian striker Teo Gutierrez has also set his sights on the June tournament.

The quartet will meet on the opening weekend of the Final championship - formerly known as the Clausura - with Boca visiting Newell's at the Marcelo Bielsa Stadium in Rosario on Saturday (2215 GMT).

Title holders San Lorenzo visit Olimpo in Bahia Blanca on Friday (0030 Saturday) and River host Gimnasia at the Monumental on Sunday (0030 Monday).

The bulk of Argentina's squads has come from European clubs at the three World Cup so far this century, with the domestic league suffering a constant drain of talent that has lowered its standard and made it an unlikely springboard to a regular national team berth.

But in the past two years, for a mixture of personal reasons and the need for regular first-team action, several leading players have returned to play in their home country.

Gago - who left La Liga's Valencia last year - is assured of a place in Argentina's midfield, where he is the principal provider for Lionel Messi, but he is also prone to nagging injuries.

Winger Maxi should be going to his third World Cup on his current form for Newell's, who will also be playing in the Libertadores Cup.

Orion is Sabella's third-choice goalkeeper, although there are other candidates knocking on the door. No 1 Sergio Romero of Monaco and understudy Mariano Andujar at Catania are not getting regular football at their European clubs.

Banega, Gago's natural reserve for the national team, has just joined Newell's on loan from Valencia, where coach Juan Antonio Pizzi could not guarantee he would see action week in, week out.

"When it was almost a done deal with Newell's, Leo (Messi) called me so say he and (Barcelona coach Gerardo) Martino were very happy. It was a noble gesture and I thank him for it," Banega said at his unveiling on Monday. The three are from Rosario and are fans of Newell's.

Gutierrez, who could be Colombia's main striker in Brazil if Radamel Falcao does not recover in time from knee ligament surgery, needs to improve dramatically on the poor form he showed for River in the Inicial, the first of the two championships in the season.

He will be better supported in the second half of the season at River, who have shown promising form in friendlies in the hot summer recess, not least twice beating arch rivals Boca in matches taken as seriously as if they were for points.

COACHING CHANGES

Big-name coaches have been coveted more than players in the nearly two-month-long recess, with San Lorenzo having to replace Pizzi, who left them as soon as they had clinched the Inicial title to take charge at Valencia.

The Saints brought Edgardo Bauza back home from Ecuador, where he had steered LDU Quito to the Andean country's first Libertadores Cup victory in 2008.

Former Chile coach Claudio Borghi has returned to Argentinos Juniors, the club with whom he won league and Libertadores Cup titles as a striker in the mid 1980s and the 2009/10 Clausura championship as coach.

Ricardo Gareca has left Velez Sarsfield after leading them to three league titles in five years, a relatively long stint in Argentina, where coaches generally do not last more than six to 12 months.

His successor, former assistant Jose "Turu" Flores, began his tenure with a 1-0 victory over Arsenal in the Argentine Supercup last week, an indication that Velez will continue to be among top contenders in the league and will also be bidding for a second Libertadores Cup title.

(Editing by Stephen Wood)

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