- Copa Libertadores final second leg takes place on Saturday
- River Plate drew 2-2 away to Boca Juniors in the first instalment
- We look at where the trophy is likely to be won and lost
While Boca Juniors fans have been packing out La Bombonera just to watch a training session, tens of thousands of River Plate supporters have been queuing at the Monumental for tickets. Make no mistake, Argentinian football is at fever pitch as its two giants go head to head in the final of the Copa Libertadores de America.
Tension is in the air and passions are running high. Believing the trophy already won, some Boca and River fans are already picturing their team at the FIFA Club World Cup UAE 2018, while the more superstitious among them are hunting high and low for their lucky jerseys, for fear of a less happy outcome.
What is for sure is that Saturday’s second leg is no ordinary match; 90 minutes that could become 120 in the event of the teams being all square on aggregate, and then a penalty shootout if a winner still cannot be found. Marking your card, FIFA.com reveals where the final would well be won.
Los Xeneizes have a formidable front line, both in terms of quality and quantity, so formidable in fact that their fans do not seem too worried about the probable injury-enforced absence of winger Cristian Pavon. Ramon Wanchope Abila and Dario Benedetto have been in among the goals and have a happy knack of scoring even when Boca are not at their best.
Between them they scored all six of Boca’s goals in the semi-finals and first leg of the final. Offering further options up front are the ever dangerous Mauro Zarate, livewire Colombian wide man Sebastian Villa, and talented attacking midfielder Edwin Cardona.
The influence of Carlos Tevez
An integral part of the Boca attack, El Apache deserves a paragraph or two to himself and is now at his sharpest since his return from Chinese football at the start of the year. “This is the biggest final of my career,” he said a few days ago, indicating that the rivalry with River weighs more than any of the 24 titles he has won to date.
Now 34, he has accepted that his days of playing every game are over, though he still made his mark in a 20-minute appearance in first leg, creating Boca’s best chance of the second half. Pavon’s absence may mean a start for Tevez at the Monumental, but if he is on the bench, he would make for the perfect impact substitute.
El Xeneize are a side that do not like to sit back and see what happens, and their away form has been impressive across the campaign. Unbeaten in their six away games so far (three in the group phase and three in the knockout phase), they have won one, drawn five and scored nine goals in the process.
What is more, they are undefeated in three visits to the Monumental since Guillermo Barros Schelotto took over as coach, winning twice and drawing once.
The team from Buenos Aires’ Nunez neighbourhood head into the showdown without several key players, among them forwards Ignacio Scocco and Rafael Santos Borre, while Rodrigo Mora has only just returned from injury. It remains to be seen if Marcelo Gallardo will play two strikers up front or deploy Lucas Pratto as a lone spearhead. As the River coach has shown on previous occasions, however, he has a gift for coming up with tactical solutions to the problems posed by a relatively small squad.
Gallardo is suspended and will be absent from the bench, just as he was in the first leg at La Bombonera, when his team responded with a gutsy display, a feature of his tenure so far.
Having won the Libertadores under Gallardo in 2015, the River line-up boasts several players who know what it means to lift the trophy. Mora, Jonatan Maidana, Leonardo Ponzio, Gonzalo Pity Martinez and Camilo Mayada all formed part of that Copa-winning side, while Enzo Perez won it with Estudiantes in 2009 and Franco Armani did likewise with Atletico Nacional in 2016.
Boca have four former winners in their ranks: Tevez (in 2003), Emmanuel Mas and Julio Buffarini, who helped San Lorenzo claim the trophy in 2014, and coach Barros Schelotto, a four-time Copa champion in his playing days, in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2007.
Their defensive diamond
With Armani in goal, Maidana and Javier Pinola in central defence and Ponzio in the midfield holding role, Los Millonarios possess a solid and experienced back-line. In the knockout rounds River have conceded just two goals when those four have all been on the pitch.
Boca’s two goals in the first leg came against a River side shorn of the services of Ponzio, who was sidelined with a muscle strain. The defensive midfielder was also absent when Gremio scored in the second leg of the semi-final, having earlier been substituted.