Boca, River must beat tough Libertadores foes to set up Superclasico semis clash
It took almost 60 years for the Copa Libertadores to throw up a final between River Plate and Boca Juniors, the great Buenos Aires rivals. The event proved too much for the city, and fan violence forced the decisive to be controversially re-located to Madrid.
Afterwards, South American football blew a collective sigh of relief and consoled itself that there could be no repeat. The traditional format of a home and away, two-legged final was giving way to a one off decider on a neutral ground -- Santiago, Chile in this year's version.
- Wright Thompson: The greatest game never played
But, less than nine months after the Boca-River final, the 2019 Libertadores could be set for the next best -- or worst -- thing. There is no longer a two-legged final, with all of its connotations of territorial domination. But there is a two legged semifinal -- and should Boca and River make it through the quarterfinals, staged this week and next, then they will meet in October with a place in the grand final at stake.
The stakes will be worryingly high; there is Boca's desire to avenge last year's defeat, and the sorry fact that their team bus was stoned by River fans. There is River's resentment about their home game being taken to Madrid, and general anguish that the case has been under deliberation by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And the only thing standing between a Boca-River re-run are this year's outsiders.
In 2017 the format of the competition was altered. Previously squeezed into the first six months, the Libertadores now runs all year round. This has clearly been to the benefit of the continent's big two, Brazil and Argentina. Their clubs have more money than their competitors, and can therefore strengthen the squad during the course of the campaign.
The consequences are clear. In the last three years, of the 24 quarterfinalists, all but five have come from Brazil and Argentina. This year one half of the draw is entirely Brazilian, featuring four heavyweight ex-champions. Gremio and Palmeiras get the ball rolling on Tuesday night, with the winner taking on the victor of the clash between Flamengo and Internacional.
Boca and River, meanwhile, find themselves in the other half of the draw, together with the two outsiders. River face the only team in the last eight yet to win the title -- Paraguayan club Cerro Porteno, for whom winning the Libertadores is something of an obsession. While Cerro's great rivals Olimpia have three titles to brag about, El Ciclon have none in their 40th time in the competition. Might this be their year?
River have hardly looked convincing in this year's Libertadores. True, the reigning champions are unbeaten. But they have won just two of their eight games, and their total of 10 goals is the lowest of the quarterfinalists. On the other hand, their morale will have been boosted by an astonishing 6-1 win this weekend over reigning domestic champions Racing.
Thursday's match will surely be tighter. Racing came at River with a defensive line that was both slow and high. River sliced through them with ease. Away from home, Cerro Porteno will be much more conservative, and will put their trust in the traditional Paraguayan virtues of staunch defence. With a 100% home record, they will seek to define the tie next week in Asuncion.
Boca's task is also to overcome an opponent who was won all of its home games -- in this case with the considerable advantage of altitude. Liga of Quito were surprise winners in 2008, and remain the only side from Ecuador to have claimed the trophy. This is their best side since those days -- and now, as then, they make full use of the rarefied air of the Ecuadorian capital, some 2,800 metres above sea level. The onus is on Liga to win Wednesday's first leg. Boca will look to run the clock down.
Boca coach Gustavo Alfaro is under pressure, especially after last week's shock elimination from the domestic cup at the hands of tiny Almagro. Alfaro has considerable experience -- he recently passed the mark of 900 games as a senior coach. Almost all of them, though, have been in charge of relatively small clubs. Some say that he is too conservative for a giant like Boca. But on Wednesday in Quito there will be few complaints if a cautious approach secures a draw or even a narrow defeat.
Boca trust that they can clinch their semifinal place in the cauldron of their world famous Bombonera stadium -- and then, with at least one eye on revenge for last year, they may even hope that River can make it through to meet them.