Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle
In the buildup to the much-awaited final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, one veteran Buenos Aires journalist, a Boca Juniors fan, has already spotted an advantage for his team.
The second leg, on Nov. 24, is in River Plate's stadium. Should Boca win the trophy, they will perform the lap of honour on the turf of their rivals -- the ultimate humiliation. The chances of River ever having the same opportunity are very small. From next year, the competition will have a one-off final on a neutral ground. Buenos Aires would have to be chosen, Boca's stadium selected, and Boca and River would have to be the finalists. It is an unlikely combination. And so, for the time being, he can merrily dream of what could be the greatest-ever triumph in the glorious history of his club.
These two matches are the biggest, highest-stakes occasions in over 100 years of one of football's fiercest and most important rivalries. In 50 years' time, the losers will still be taunted over what happens in the next few weeks. The pressure, then, is bordering on the insane.
In such conditions, it would almost certainly be too much to expect a classic. There will be an excess of passion, plenty of drama -- but not, perhaps, too much quality. The first leg, in Boca's stadium, La Bombonera, is likely to be tight. With the away-goals rule not in operation in the final, there is no incentive for River to be overly ambitious -- though they will recall their 2-0 league victory at Boca's ground in mid-September.
Boca can look back on that occasion as an unfortunate slip, the consequence of coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto selecting the wrong starting lineup. That match looks as if it was a last hurrah for Carlos Tevez, whose latest spell with Boca has not been a success. Earlier this year, the side appeared to be carrying Tevez, who has lost some of his pace. Since that defeat to River he has not been seen in the Libertadores, not even as one of the options off the bench. A big-occasion player, he might have some part to play in this two-legged final, but not as a starter.
Boca will also recall that their centre-forward in that game, Dario Benedetto, was still easing his way back from a long-term injury. He did not rediscover his mojo until the Libertadores' semifinals against Palmeiras of Brazil; in both legs he came off the bench to score wonderful goals. Schelotto will have to decide whether to start with Benedetto, or save him for the second half and go with the strong Ramon "Wanchope" Abila up front.
He will be tempted to stick with his two young wingers, Cristian Pavon and the Colombian Sebastian Villa. In the previous round, Villa played in the away leg, with Mauro Zarate starting at home. Zarate supplies more elaboration, while Villa is full of speed and power down the flanks. Since River's full-backs are attack-minded, putting them under pressure might be a sound idea.
An injury to central midfielder Pablo Perez is a worry. Perez was surprisingly left out of the side for that 2-0 defeat to River back in September. His replacement, 18-year-old Agustin Almendra, is a magnificent prospect, but was unable to make an impression on the match. Perez knits the side together with his give-and-go passing, and Boca hope he will be fit in time. But if not, the cloud has a silver lining. He frequently picks up yellow cards, and another one Saturday would rule him out of the second leg. In addition to Perez, Pavon, midfielder Nahitan Nandez and left-back Lucas Olaza are each a yellow card away from a ban.
River Plate also have plenty of players needing to watch their step; the centre-back pairing of Jonatan Maidana and Javier Pinola, midfielder Enzo Perez, winger Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez and strikers Lucas Pratto and Rafael Santos Borre will all be walking a tightrope Saturday.
Santos Borre, in particular, has become an important name on the teamsheet of coach Marcelo Gallardo. The young Colombian is very mobile, and his runs behind the opposing defensive line help open up space for River's attacks.
The shape of the midfield will be exercising the mind of Gallardo, who, banned from the final, will have to do all of his work in the days leading up to the game. Veteran holding midfielder Leo Ponzio is injured. Back in September, Ponzio was part of a midfield trio that gained numerical superiority in the centre and provided the platform for River's victory. Ponzio held the middle, with Enzo Perez to his right and the dynamic and hugely promising Exequiel Palacios to the left. Martinez took his usual position wide on the left, with Lucas Pratto pushed toward the other flank.
There might be a temptation to do something similar, but without Ponzio, will Gallardo bring in Bruno Zuculini? The ex-Manchester City man has not impressed since returning from Europe at the start of the year. With Zuculini in the side, Enzo Perez can move right and help block Pavon. That would be the most natural way to reproduce the template of the recent victory -- with the chance of a twist. Should the burly Pratto not be used in a central role, then Gallardo might decide to replace him on the right with the creative Ignacio Fernandez -- retaining his three-man block in the middle while also having width on the right. Whatever happens, it seems that the main creative weapon, Colombian international Juan Fernando Quintero, is most likely to be left on the bench, to be unleashed against tiring defenders, or saved for the second leg.
The permutations are many, but the pressure is a constant.The referees for these two matches would be well advised to light the touch paper -- and retreat to a safe distance.