On Sunday 23 September, Boca Juniors hosted River Plate once again in the renowned Superclásico, arguably, one of the most important events in world football and sport in general – have you read our match reaction and tactical analysis yet? The following analysis will attempt to throw some light upon Boca Juniors’ inability to win important matches.
Despite the Clásico’s seemingly irrelevant impact given its early arrival at the beginning of the season and with both teams minding their continental plans of conquest, the expectations were set quite high prior to the match as a result of both team’s fantastic run of form – Boca being back-to-back champions and on route to reaching the semi-finals of the CONMEBOL Libertadores and River finally awake from their league nap of four consecutive draws and also a contender for one of the four spots in the Libertadores’ exclusive table of semi-finalists.
Sadly for the club from the picturesque venue of La Boca, its team and manager showed that, once again, they fell short when a defying rival was put in front of them, something that’s been happening for years now and some fear might turn into a sign of the times for the club after their unparalleled success in the first decade of the new millennium. Will Boca Juniors ever win an important match again?
As we all know, football is a sport of momentum. Both at small and big chronological scale, this intangible force of debateable existence shifts from team-to-team through the years and provides an extra boost when it really matters. Today, it is crucial to not take this allied mystique for granted because it is not there anymore. Gone are the days when a first goal by the Xeneizes at La Bombonera would mean game over for any contender. Some even have the insolence of suggesting that the steep stands of the stadium don’t put pressure on their shoulders anymore. I wonder how they even dare! Anyone denying that Boca have lost this aptitude would be behaving in a naive way, because today our beloved club appear as only a shadow of what it has historically been.
Leaving opinions aside, one thing remains undeniable and it is the fact that Boca Juniors have lost the habit of winning important matches against challenging rivals in adverse circumstances. Ten years without an international title speaks for itself – the 2008 Recopa Sudamericana was the last time Boca lifted a non-domestic piece of silverware. Today, these competitions in which the club used to excel look more and more distant with every passing year as disappointments and embarrassments (such as the unprecedented, shameful pepper spray incident) start to accumulate. Unlike River Plate, whose exclusive devotion to continental aspirations is some years old already, Boca have not left their local fronts unattended. Nevertheless, two back-to-back local championships never taste quite the same as a Copa Libertadores medal for the hardcore supporter, even though they will undoubtedly elevate the status of said local titles to the highest possible should some River fan come close to them during a coffee machine chat. This may be some acceptable policy for any regular club, but not for Boca Juniors. A club that has for twenty years been regularly featured in uncountable front pages around the world and whose pastime is to challenge the likes of Real Madrid and AC Milan for the leadership of the exclusive international titles ranking cannot tolerate such a drought.
Half of the recent early goodbyes to the hopes of continental glory were made possible by Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate. Boca’s first defeat against Gallardo’s men might seem distant, having taken place almost five years ago, although evidently, its effect on the entire club’s morale still troubles more than one mind. Emanuel Gigliotti’s poorly-taken penalty in the return leg of the 2014 Copa Sudamericana semi-finals not only denied us the chance to eliminate River from a CONMEBOL competition as we had done ten years prior in 2004, but also earned the (until then) respected striker a one-way ticket to Chinese exile. A year later, the awaited rematch came. The round-of-sixteen of the 2015 Copa Libertadores put Boca, whose 6-0-0 record in the group stages had set a record in the competition, against River Plate, who, after miraculously gaining access to the next phase because of a favour Tigres de Monterrey would later regret having done, were put against the best-seeded team. Against all odds, Boca once again were not able to overcome River’s aggressive approach. The forgettable performance still lacked the icing on the cake, which turned out to be the pepper spray incident which surely left a stain on the club’s modern history.
Finally, back in March, as evidence of the Europeanisation of Argentine football, Boca and River met each other again. This time it was the Supercopa, the first-ever final between both. We all remember how that went as well, as we lost by two goals in what was a pitiful presentation. Ultimately, the fact that River not only beat Boca but also won the three trophies plays an important role in how these defeats affect Boca’s reality, nowadays.
A Copa Libertadores second-place medal against eventual Club World Cup winners Corinthians in 2012 and a surprising elimination in the hands of minnows Independiente del Valle, the Ecuadorian one-season-wonder, in the semi-finals of the 2016 edition completes this negative string of results.
Contrary to what you might hear in any sensationalist football show on telly, Boca Juniors’ problem does not have to be Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate. That does not provide an answer to the remaining missed opportunities against less intimidating rivals. A rival tactician cannot be responsible for stopping the progress of the biggest club in the country. A club that achieves yearly financial surpluses of four hundred million Argentine pesos and has so many stars it cannot fit them in the starting XI.
Boca Juniors’ problem has for years been strictly a matter of mindset. They don’t win when it matters because they find themselves overwhelmed by any rival who manages to push them a centimetre out of their comfort zone using whatever method added to simple high-pressing. It has been years since Boca played up to the expectations when it mattered, and only the managers and players are to be blamed for that, without being necessary to turn the image of the rivals into a ghost. Yes, antecedents might put considerable extra pressure on the team’s shoulders every time they face the eternal rivals, but that sort of pressure turns much more manageable when you outsmart the opponent for once. This can only be achieved through exceptional displays of football. Even better displays than those developed inside Gallardo’s head. Exceptional football, worthy of champions, something Boca has not shown in a long time. Yes, I meant that.
There is a slight difference between knowing exactly what your team is going to do to win than hoping for one of Cristian Pavón’s fifty-million-dollar appearances or Carlos Tévez’ moments of magic every weekend for extended periods of time. This last resource was something which both Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Rodolfo Arruabarrena have ended up hoping for when football does not come out as natural. It is perfectly valid, but not sustainable as your main strategy if you plan to beat the best. Combine this toxic approach with a mammoth-sized Argentine Superliga of twenty-six teams, many of which should not even be playing first division football. This is the environment in which, through consecutive league titles, Boca’s good (at times spectacular) level of football was spoiled by the demands of the competition. The well-oiled machine that Boca have been domestically, however, never seems to function properly when pushed a bit further – because that is something to be expected outside your local league.
This is where River Plate are different. Its team has almost exclusively dedicated to international objectives in the past four years. Going from one knockout stage to another, Gallardo’s men seem to be more at ease than before an adversity when under the two-legged format. This is something normal, a result of having made so many things right over the years. However, it appears that for some people inside the Boca Juniors world, these aspects are too difficult to understand. Both the managers, with their habit of experimenting at the worst times and leaving their best players on the bench as it happened during the Superclásico, or the players, who always highlight River’s “relentlessness” after every clash, as if they were innocent youth newcomers and needed to be reminded that important matches are meant to be played with a little physical and psychological extra. Take Gigliotti, for example, who chose to let pressure ruin his chance with a slow-motion penalty execution instead of hitting the ball so hard any goalie would have ended in the back of the net should he have dared to step between it and the ball. Choices, choices.
As explained, the virtue of winning important matches does not come on its own, it is something a team learns with the years. Boca should not simply patiently wait for it to return. Specific issues must be addressed in order not to make the same mistakes again. The sooner these matches stop meaning a fixed date with crisis on the calendar, the better. If not, the impact becomes quickly noticeable and things like being knocked out of the Copa Argentina by Gimnasia de La Plata happen.
After the Superclásico, Boca showed that, even five years after that first defeat against River and with a consolidated project (although one of questioned success), they still don’t meet the requirements of a high-calibre match. This leads us to wonder what the people who still want a (fourth!) rematch with River are thinking of. Should that happen, it would be in no less than the final of the CONMEBOL Libertadores. Can you imagine losing that final? Because as it stands, what are the odds of us winning it? I would say not many! Losing said once-in-a-lifetime, morbid clash would instantly invalidate one hundred years of history and rivalry. Any argument of superiority by the losing side would turn useless compared to the mere mention of that final. Do we really want to play that final? The results could be disastrous, worse than relegation. Well, probably not worse than that. Nothing is worse than that.
Technically, the possibility is there. Should it come, we will be ready. Perhaps not completely ready, but hopefully better than last time.