Argentina Prepares for Season Kickoff of Apertura Championship With Fans Unsure of What to Expect

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentine fans have little idea of what to expect in the Apertura championship that kicks off this weekend following a close season which has seen several teams change beyond recognition.

Leading pair Boca Juniors and River Plate have both made wholesale changes after a dismal first half of the year in the Clausura championship while several smaller teams have undergone a total metamorphosis.

Unfashionable Buenos Aires club Quilmes led the way dispensing with 16 players from last season and bringing in 15 new faces.

There have been similar clearouts at Racing Club where 12 players have departed Banfield (14) and Independiente (16).

Eleven of the 20 clubs have new coaches including Boca Juniors who have brought in Argentina'a 1994 World Cup coach Alfio Basile to replace the disgraced Jorge Benitez.

Benitez resigned one day after television cameras caught him spitting at Guadalajara striker Adolfo Bautista during the Libertadores Cup tie which was abandoned due to a crowd riot at the Bombonera stadium ending Boca's interest in the competition.

There could be further fun and games at Boca where the unpredictable Diego Maradona will making his debut as a football director after being appointed as the club's vice-president of football.

Maradona who always stood up for his team mates during his playing days has already warned the players not to expect him to do the same now he is on the other side.

Boca have snapped up two of the top local players signing midfielders Federico Insua and Daniel Bilos from Independiente and Banfield respectively.

Bilos was instrumental in leading unfashionable Banfield to the quarter-finals of this year's Libertadores Cup.

'We've got a great team now we have to prove it on the field' said Basile.

Meanwhile the exodus of top players abroad has continued with River Plate losing key midfielders Luis Gonzalez and Javier Mascherano both established Argentina internationals to foreign clubs.

Gonzalez has joined Porto in Portugal while Mascherano surprisingly has moved to neighbouring Brazil to play for Corinthians in a $15 million move.

Porto have also snapped up Racing Club's top striker Lisandro Lopez.

Defending champions Velez Sarsfield meanwhile have been an island of stability managing to hold on to the core of their title-winning team as well as coach Miguel Angel Russo.

They are likely to start as favourites alongside the big two who have both been given home fixtures against promoted teams to kick off their campaigns.

Boca take on Gimnasia-Jujuy while River host Tiro Federal who are making their debut in the top flight.

River have kept coach Leonardo Astrada but unlike Boca have not managed to attract any big names players to the club.

They suffered another setback on Wednesday when Colombian striker Martin Arzuaga who had agreed terms to join from Atletico Junior failed a medical when team doctors detected a chronic knee problem.

San Lorenzo one of the middle-ranking Buenos Aires teams have made arguably the two most interesting signings in a bid to improve on their disappointing 16th place in the Clausura.

Uruguay's rugged and red card-prone 33-year-old captain Paolo Montero has signed on a one-year contract while Paraguayan Jose Cardozo 34 will lead the attack under new coach Gustavo Alfaro who has joined from Quilmes.

Cardozo has excellent credentials with a prolific scoring record at Mexico's Toluca behind him including 36 goals in 25 games in the 2002 Apertura championship.

San Lorenzo host Velez on Saturday at the Nuevo Gastometro stadium in the most attractive match of the weekend.

The championship kicks off on Friday night with Racing Club at home to Banfield.