The first leg of the final presumed as the biggest in the history of our sport passed its entertainment test with flying colours at La Bombonera, once again dressed accordingly for another magical continental final. Both Boca Juniors and River Plate showed through their game why they are in the final of the CONMEBOL Libertadores.
The arch-rivals provided an almost global audience with a Superclasico of similar quality to the ones we have become accustomed lately: an affair full of excitement, with plenty of goals and explicit desire to win. In the end, it was the visitors who left the pitch noticeably more satisfied upon the second leg with their hard-earned two-goal draw, but before we get to that there is an entire clash to review. In this match analysis, we will discuss both team’s performances and statistics in the first instalment of this unique event.
Boca Juniors 2 (R. Ábila; D. Benedetto) – River Plate 2 (L. Pratto; C. Izquierdoz (O.G.))
Since we live in South America, the land of extremely unusual things, it would have been a miracle if this final had been inaugurated according to plan and schedule. It was not. The entire country and a considerable portion of the beautiful game’s fan base around the world spent ten days commenting, debating and speculating about the ultimate final. The event generated friction between CONMEBOL and its broadcaster regarding the date of the match, was made part of the political debate and even became a dilemma for national security due to the G20 summit set to take place in Buenos Aires only days after the final. All of that for what? Only for it to be called off due to weather inclemency. Fortunately, it was only postponed twenty-four hours. We did not only have to wait more than fifty years for this final, for when it finally arrived, but we also fell for its fake shot and had to wait another day. However, I bet you won’t find anyone who has seen the match and not say it was completely worth the wait.
In order not to succumb against the creation Marcelo Gallardo has been perfecting for five years, it was crucial for Boca to avoid failing the same exam again. River presented itself as the ultimate rival. Not the best team in the Copa by any means, although one that you always want to face. The opponent would not make that an easy task, though.
Franco Armani saved a crucial one-on-one in the last kick of the game, thus recovering from his recent poor performances and going back to his god-like average. At the back, Gallardo surprised us all with a fancy line of three centre-backs – even his players claim to not have known, remember Gallardo was not allowed to even put a foot in the surroundings. These, along with Milton Casco and Gonzalo Montiel on the flanks tried to neutralise Boca’s verticality with ambiguous results. The key was, like we said in our preview, in the middle, where Enzo Pérez and Exequiel Palacios, closely observed by Real Madrid, did all the dirty work to free Gonzalo Martínez in his creator task. This would work perfectly, since he assisted Lucas Pratto in his goal, making it unnecessary to comment on the latter’s production on Sunday.
Gallardo’s men had a good afternoon at the expense of Boca’s defensive flaws, forced by River’s overcrowding technique and the attempt to neutralise Wilmar Barrios in the middle. The Millonarios proved to have eye-catching football to spare and were the most attractive team to watch. However, this did not saved them from their hosts’ world-class firepower.
One of the trends we have noticed approaching the end of the Copa was Boca’s improvement in the competition. Unlike in the Superliga, the Xeneize shows a much more mature self, appearing like a team that is extremely effective at what it does best: scoring goals, lots of them. Anyone paying enough attention would not be wrong in comparing this style to Carlos Bianchi’s team, responsible for the club’s golden era. Direct, aggressive football since the first whistle. Once the primary task of getting ahead in the scoresheet is complete, comes the time to let the rival have the ball and defend as effectively as possible, patiently waiting for an opportunity to counter-attack and finish the opponent in the blink of an eye. This core idea was the central tactic behind the triumphs against Cruzeiro and Palmeiras. Boca has developed an extremely direct style of football, refusing to be the asphyxiant ball controllers they once were. In the Copa, against these types of rivals, they make use of their firepower to become a very effective scoring machine. It is the football commentator’s fad phrase these days: “Boca do not play better football than River, however, they can score many goals out of nowhere”. It is a very valid comparison since Guillermo and Gustavo Barros Schelotto have adopted this style as a result of their tactical struggles and abundance in attacking quality. This identity crisis has led them to quickly make a call, and they decided to prioritise results over essence. Judging by what we can see, the results have not been bad at all since they are forty-five minutes away from winning the Copa Libertadores.
The team have two weeks to polish whatever did not go according to plan. When speaking about things that went wrong, it inevitably makes us think about that defence. It is true that the midfield could not assert itself until the final part of the first half, but the backline’s performance as a counter-measure was far from ideal. Both Lucas Olaza and Leonardo Jara looked far from comfortable against Martínez and his full-backs, who kept invading their territory. This led to a rain of crosses from left and right. Neither Carlos Izquierdoz not Lisandro Magallán were lucid enough to impose their dominance in the air that day. The second line of defence and attack, the middle, has had better matches. Although Wilmar Barrios was more than important defensively, he never managed to impose himself in the middle, constantly fighting River’s attacks, most of the times outnumbered. Nahitan Nández and Pablo Pérez went from low to almost high approaching the end. The Uruguayan looked unsettled at first but ended the match on a high note. The same applies to Pablo Pérez, who had to bear with his foot ache, noticed in his mild passing and lack of his distinctive impetus.
Perhaps the most important improvement to Boca’s game came from a terrible eventuality. Cristian Pavón was causing trouble down the left and keeping Montiel occupied until he tore his hamstring and had to be subbed off. As of today, he is out of the second match. At first, it was all gloom, but the entrance of Darío Benedetto meant a breath of fresh air we will analyse in a moment. Pavón leaving the pitch was sadly a positive thing for Boca’s aspirations. Benedetto and Ramón Ábila together up-front forced River to cease their overwhelming attacks and focus on defending.
Onto the positives now. Agustín Rossi played one of his best matches in a Boca shirt. Yes, he conceded two goals, but one was an unstoppable finish and the other was a deviation off one of his own men. Besides, River could have scored five had it not been by him. The kid reminded us of how good he is under the three posts and denied Martínez twice and a point-blank header from Rafael Santos Borré. The crowd immediately recognised this, and applauses rained from the stands for the goalie.
At the other end of the pitch, it was the strikers’ show that made jump from our seats on multiple occasions. Wanchope Ábila keeps proving why, some years ago, he offered Daniel Angelici to pay him by goals scored. Quite a statement back then, but nowadays it would be more profitable to sign a contract with a fixed sum because he cannot stop scoring. Gone are the days when Guillermo kept him on his bench because of the respect he had for Angelici, who brought Wanchope to the club. Today, he is not only a fan favourite but also a fixed starter for the manager. He did a fantastic job battling with River’s triple centre defence and scored the first screamer of the game, characterised by his bulldozer-like attitude. After one of the first collective plays of the match, he cut inside within the box as if he was any agile, then got his powerful shot blocked by Armani. The rebound left him with no option but to use his left foot this time. Caring very little about the keeper’s first post covering or hand positioning, he hit the ball so hard Armani nearly entered the goal along with the ball. No goalkeeper in the world could have stopped that. His deploy of resources and constant improvement at this point is truly remarkable and makes him worthy of being Boca Juniors’ centre-forward.
Another one worthy of his ovations, his number nine shirt and his comparisons with Martín Palermo is Darío Benedetto. In to replace Pavón, he forced River to switch from a 5-3-2 to their classical 4-4-2. However, no tactical switch can stop the power of momentum. After River tied the game immediately after Wanchope’s goal, in what was the most childish piece of man-marking ever, Benedetto made us push our throats to their limits again. After a fantastic free-kick into the box from Sebastián Villa, Benedetto deviated the trajectory of the ball with his head, away enough from Armani’s stretched arm, onto the top corner to make it four goals in his last four shots on goal in the Copa Libertadores since his return. The goalie eventually had revenge though and denied Benedetto his second goal of the day, what would have been the winner in the last chance of the game. Football is never fair and not only decided his goal would be compensated by a mediocre own goal but that he would also miss what would have been one of the most heroic goals of the club’s history and certainly a guarantee for the return leg.
Already mentioned, Sebastián Villa had another outstanding performance on the right wing. Perhaps the only thing to point out was his lack of support for Jara, who had one of the worst games of his career, partly due to his loneliness against two rivals. From the middle line towards Armani’s goal, however, Villa actively participated in every Boca attack, contributed to enlarging the width of the team and provided with an assist. He is definitely starting in two weeks.
Finally, the last paragraph of the ratings section is reserved for Carlos Tévez. Already a club legend, now a shadow of his former self, he is an example of what an experienced player should contribute to the team with. Not only has he accepted not being a first-team player this season, but he has accepted becoming a source of support and knowledge for those that do start. On football terms, he entered to replace Villa in order to alter the dynamic of the attack a little bit. His contribution was notorious to the point he, after a fantastic one-two initiated by a subtle backheel touch to go around the defender, provided Benedetto with a fantastic assist that left him one-on-one with Armani.
As if this was not enough, Tévez made headlines for his harangue after the game was over. The former Manchester City man, as a champion, leader, and especially as a Xeneize, did not allow Izquierdoz to look defeated in front of his people. This led to his “Head high, for f*ck’s sake! We are not defeated yet”. This went viral for all the wrong reasons after some people decided to condemn him for insulting as if football was discussed in academical terms. Tévez showed that this is what he returned from Europe for and that he cannot allow the people he leads to look defeated when there is still an entire match to be played. Could he be an option from the start for the return leg after this? It might not be in Guillermo’s plans, but some supporters already think otherwise. The bond between Carlos Tévez and the people of Boca Juniors is something simply beyond explanation and this attitude confirms it.
ASÍ FUE LA INCREÍBLE ARENGA DE TEVEZ EN EL FINAL DEL PARTIDO#LibertadoresxFOX | “¡Cabeza arriba!”, el grito de Carlitos para sus compañeros que no parecen irse contentos con el 2-2. pic.twitter.com/Rp0q1WwbiQ
— FOX Sports Argentina (@FOXSportsArg) 11 de noviembre de 2018
Whether it bothered you or not, Izquierdoz’ reaction was a bit like everyone’s. Of course, this result is not the best, especially considering how close we were from winning it. However, I have never seen anyone win a match by lamenting on his mistakes. We are in a final and, as in every final, it is fifty-fifty. No matter who says otherwise, everybody knows it, especially those who like to brag too much. We shall see in two weeks.
We have already gone through the good, bad and ugly of Boca Juniors in the first leg of the Superclasico. I am going to be honest with you to sum my argument up: any tactical analysis is only useful for informative purposes at this point. We have crossed the line of no return. With or without a game plan, being superior than the rival or not, we have reached this instance and we must face it. What I mean is: this is what we have, and no matter how critical we are towards either the manager or his methods, few things can change in two weeks. Once this is over, the history of the club will have taken a path it will never divert from, whether we like it or not. The same applies to the rival. However, until that happens, it is time to put whatever considerations we may have aside and focus on supporting the team as much as we can, be it at the stadium, at home in Argentina or anywhere in the world.
If you are new to this complex world, then allow me to be your guide. This is what Boca Juniors is all about, and what it has always been about. We reach finals, we win them. We do not care how or why we go a lo Boca. If that is complemented with good football, even better, but those two are never mutually dependent. I have already forgotten about the time I believed in this team so much. I am aware of its limitations, but I am also aware of its amazing capabilities. Heads up, there are still ninety to go and we want the seventh. We are coming for eternal glory.