Soccer-Injuries fail to dent River Plate climb to top of table

By Rex Gowar

BUENOS AIRES, April 20 (Reuters) - River Plate lost two of their Colombian players through injury but were able to climb to the top of the standings with a 1-0 victory over Velez Sarsfield in an exciting Final Championship clash at the Monumental on Sunday.

Striker Teo Gutierrez scored the only goal after half an hour but had to off with a leg injury early in the second half that sparked fears for his fitness with less than two months to go to the World Cup finals.

"I have faith that there's nothing (serious) and all's well. It was tough but, thank God, the team managed to win," Gutierrez told Futbol Para Todos.

Defensive rock Eder Balanta, whose form could earn him a place in Colombia coach Jose Pekerman's squad at the Brazil finals, also had to come off with a leg muscle injury after a knock 10 minutes from time.

"It was a strain, let's hope it's nothing serious," said the 21-year-old, fast emerging as a world class centre back.

River, having chalked up a fourth successive home win without conceding a goal, moved on to 27 points with four matches remaining but can be caught by Gimnasia, who are at home to All Boys in La Plata on Monday.

Estudiantes, who drew 0-0 at Rosario Central on Saturday, and Colon, held to a goalless draw by Belgrano in Santa Fe, are one point behind River.

A packed Monumental was heaving to the rhythm of fans' chants as they urged their team to victory with dreams of a new title to erase the memory of their first ever relegation in 2011.

Velez, one of the better-run clubs in the country, have won three titles since River lifted their last, a record 34th, in 2008 under former coach Diego Simeone.


The decisive goal came following a poor clearance by Velez keeper Sebastian Sosa, which was headed towards Gutierrez by midfielder Manuel Lanzini, with the striker beating the advancing goalie with a low shot under his body.

Lanzini had two chances to put River two-up in the second half but his first effort went well wide of the mark with only Sosa to beat and the keeper saved the second.

River captain Fernando Cavenaghi's audacious chip near the end deserved to go in but came back off the angle of the post and bar.

There were plenty of scares for River at the back but reserve goalkeeper Leandro Chichizola made two key saves, one in each half, to deny the Velez attack.

Chichizola has kept clean sheets in two full matches since coming on for the injured Marcelo Barovero near the end of last weekend's 1-0 home win over Atletico Rafaela, including a penalty save in Wednesday's 0-0 draw with Estudiantes in La Plata.

Arsenal, at home to Union Espanola of Chile in their first ever Libertadores Cup knockout round tie on Thursday, beat Lanus 3-1 in Martin Palermo's debut as their coach to climb off the bottom of the standings.

Former Boca Juniors and Argentina striker Palermo has replaced Gustavo Alfaro, who was sacked on Tuesday. (Editing by John O'Brien)