River Plate's miracle draw keeps them alive in the Copa Libertadores
Have River Plate just saved their Copa Libertadores campaign? The Buenos Aires giants were among the pre-tournament favourites but amazingly, with five of their six group games played, they are still without a win. But things could be much worse. Indeed, things were just five minutes away from being much worse.
Away to Tigres of Mexico River were trailing 2-0 until the 87th minute. Then, at last, their strikers came to the party. Colombian Teofilo Gutierrez, voted the best player in the Americas last year, finally scored his first goal of the campaign and then set up another for his strike partner, Uruguayan Rodrigo Mora. The long trip home from the north of Mexico will be made in much better spirits after the match finished 2-2.
The Argentines, though, are by no means out of the woods. With Tigres already through to the knockout phase, one other slot remains. River's rivals are Juan Aurich of Peru, who drew 1-1 on Tuesday with San Jose of Bolivia. If the Peruvians had won, then the race would already be all over. River would be unable to catch them. As it stands, Aurich have a two point advantage going into next Wednesday's final round of matches. If they win at home to Tigres, there is nothing River can do. But if Aurich are held to a draw, then River should be able to overtake them on goal difference: a two goal triumph at home to San Jose would be enough.
River's fate, then, is dependent on three things. First, their own competence, for anything less than a two goal win over San Jose would be poor indeed. Second, the professionalism of Tigres, who have no special incentive to go the extra mile in next week's match. In theory, accumulating more points in the group phase leads to an easier ride in the knockout stage, but in practise this often turns out to be illusory. And finally, the horrific synthetic pitch in Chiclayo, where the ball bounces around all over the place. It's bad for the spectacle but good for Juan Aurich, who are thoroughly acclimatised to these conditions.
The Peruvian pitch is part of the explanation for River's plight. In theory, their group looked straightforward but in practice, it entailed difficult trips to the extreme altitude of Oruro to face San Jose, to the dreadful surface at Chiclayo and the marathon voyage to Nuevo Leon, near the U.S. border. It is perhaps not a surprise that River Plate did not win any of their away fixtures. The shock is that they have drawn both of their home games.
In the first, they were perhaps guilty of underestimating Tigres. Certainly they seemed surprised by the pace of Joffre Guerron, who gave River defender Ramiro Funes Mori a torrid time. Something of a cult has grown up around Funes Mori, who was included in the Argentina squad for the recent international friendlies. In this game, though, River had cause to be grateful that he was injured and replaced by the far superior Colombian Eder Alvarez Balanta.
At one end, the injection of more speed and quality in the River back line made a difference. Guerron caused no more problems while at the other end, Balanta even set up River's equalising goal. But in the next home game, against Juan Aurich, he broke down with an injury. River took the lead and should have run up a baseball score; Gutierrez ratted the woodwork three times. But like a golfer who has developed a bad case of the yips, River have had real problems of late finishing the job. The second goal never came, and to their own incredulity, Aurich snatched a late equaliser.
River seemed to be suffering once more from emotional problems at the start of Wednesday's match away to Tigres. It was a time for cool heads, for playing their way into the game, for the recognition that as Brian Clough always used to stress, it only takes a second to score a goal.
Instead, they looked over-anxious. Marcelo Gallardo is a young coach who enjoyed a terrific time last year. Everything went right for him in 2013. This year, he is having to do things the hard way, an experience that will surely teach him far more than anything that happened last year.
Perhaps he can put that learning to use in the knockout phase of this year's Libertadores. But that is out of his hands. It depends on Juan Aurich not beating Tigres next Wednesday.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.