Boca Juniors and Palmeiras, a love story dating back to a fairly recent encounter back in 1994 when the Brazilian side thrashed Boca 6-1 in Sao Paulo. Despite that outcome, this tie is one which brings many memories to Boca supporters. Dating back to the Carlos Bianchi era, los Xeneizes overcame Palmeiras in the 2000 Libertadores Final to conquer their third trophy, but the story didn’t end there. One year later, but this time in semifinals, Boca once again ousted the Brazilian side. Once again Boca would go on to lift the trophy again for a 2nd consecutive time. Both clubs wouldn’t meet again until this year’s Libertadores group stage where they tied 1-1 in Brazil, and Palmeiras overcame a poor performance by Boca defeating them 0-2 in La Bombonera. In this match analysis, we will take a look at how Boca reached the Final of the Libertadores by beating its Brazilian rivals and what could be replicated from that game in order to stand a considerable chance in the Final against River Plate.
First leg – La Bombonera
Boca lined up with Rossi in goal, Jara, Izquierdoz, Magallan, Olaza, Nandez, Barrios, P. Perez, Pavon, Abila, and Zarate. Guillermo Barros Schelotto decided to put all his faith on Rossi who has had questionable performances recently, instead of playing newcomer Carlos Lampe. The intentions of both teams were clear. Boca had the intentions of controlling the pace of the game and asserting themselves in Palmeiras’ half of the field. But they were having a difficult time doing so, mostly due to the fact that “playmaker” Mauro Zarate was playing on the wing instead of in the middle like he prefers. I felt as if he was being wasted on the sideline. Boca were also missing that final pass to goal, too many intercepted passes by Palmeiras.
It was a frustrating first half of football where there were little opportunities. According to Opta, Palmeiras attempted only two shots in the 1st half. The last time they attempted less in the Libertadores was in the draw back in the group stages against Boca in Sao Paulo this past April.
The match opened up more in the second half. Palmeiras were settled on a goalless draw and were sitting back more compared to the first half. Boca were pressing up more and were closing in on an opener. In the 56th minute Mauro Zarate exited the game paving the way for Colombian international Sebastian Villa on the right flank who had a big impact on the game. Opportunities started to open up more for Boca after Villa had entered.
The most important substitution of the night was Abila exiting the field for Dario Benedetto. Many questioned this substitution because after being sidelined for over seven months, Benedetto hadn’t scored in over three-hundred days. After a very nice executed freekick by Olaza (nearly scored) Boca earned themselves a corner kick. Benedetto scored the opener beating Felipe Melo to the header while La Bombonera erupted. What would happen a few minutes later is something straight out of a fairytale. Pablo Pérez provided Benedetto with a short pass, Benedetto did a clockwise 180 degree turn while stepping on the ball. He then proceeded to delicately tap the ball to position in and shoot it into the lower left-hand corner past Weverton. La Bombonera erupted once again.
The match had little football overall, the second half more than the first. The substitutions proved to be vital in Boca’s 2-0 victory over Palmeiras. According to Opta, Benedetto only had 2 shots on goal, both went passed Weverton. Palmeiras didn’t provide any hints of attempting to win the match like they did back in April. With the first leg victory, Boca have now won 20 games against Brazilian clubs in the Libertadores, the most by any team according to Opta. Over the course of their history, Boca has proved to be a difficult team to defeat for Brazilian clubs. Boca once again were up to expectations. When little football was being played, Guillermo Barros Schelotto made the necessary adjustments to take a two-goal lead to Brazil.
Second leg – Allianz Parque
Just as everyone predicted, the second leg featured a prudent Boca side, decided to play with Palmeiras’ desperation before the pressure of its people. Additionally, having done better than River Plate in their semis, Boca felt more confident than ever and landed in Sao Paulo with the hopes of reaching the Final without much fuss.
The team was practically identical to the one that contained Palmeiras at La Bombonera a week prior. This time, however, the Schelotto twins chose to give Villa a chance right from the start over Zárate after his recent performances. His inclusion would not only mean more attacking power but would also prevent Palmeiras’ left-back from tacking attacking positions.
During the first minutes of the first half, Boca played identically to the way they did in the first leg. Taking positions correctly and playing with Palmeiras’ desperation, the Xeneize had everything under control until a long ball caught Boca’s defence asleep and would have been a true dilemma in the form of a goal had it not been for VAR. Far from evolving into a passive side, Boca chose to wake up. Approaching the 20th minute, Villa escaped down the right side, got to the goal line and sent a low cross that was intercepted by Ramón Ábila. Although he nearly missed it, his rustic finish was enough to put another nail in the Brazilian’s coffin. They now needed four goals to advance. Now with a goal to the good, Boca remained properly placed on the pitch and reached half-time with no further complications apart from that early scare.
The second half was the complete opposite, shambolic by the visiting side. Not only Palmeiras came out more aggressive (and violent) than ever, but also our players needed more than twenty minutes – and two goals – to wake up. The Brazilians insisted until they got their first goal. It was a low hit for Boca, but not as painful as what was to come. Still out of the Final, Palmeiras started employing its fullbacks to support the wingers in attack. After a series of attempts favoured by Pavón’s decreasing contribution in defence due to fatigue, it was Dudu who began to cause trouble on the right. Still disconnected, Boca’s defence gave away a childish penalty which was converted by centre-back Gustavo Gómez to turn the score around and make Boca’s confidence shrink in a matter of seconds. I did mention our players eventually woke up, but the truth is they didn’t. They just relaxed after Benedetto came off the bench to score a carbon copy of his second goal from the match a week prior, minutes after entering the match. A fantastic run from Nahitan Nández was followed by Pablo Pérez entertaining the ball for a second before giving it to the specialist. Turn, quick look at the goal, shot, goal. He truly makes it look simple with that cannon of a right foot he has. The best striker since the Martín Palermo era wrote another one of his Copa Libertadores memories pages and gave Boca the peace it needed to retake the driver’s seat approaching the end of the match. Eventually, Fernando Gago was sent to the pitch and cooled everything down with his pivotal skills in midfield at a moment Boca needed to have possession of the ball.
Against Cruzeiro and Palmeiras, Boca may have given us its best moments of football (until now that is). If they wish to beat River and lift that precious trophy in two weeks’ time, then nothing must change from these two matches against the Brazilians. Calm composed play is the way to go. Should our players continue playing as maturely as they have been doing recently, we stand a considerable chance of achieving eternal glory for the seventh time.