The South American equivalent of the Champions League reached a critical phase this week, with the Copa Libertadores quarter-final second legs being played in Brazil and Argentina.
First up on Tuesday night was the return leg of the Buenos Aires clásico between River Plate and Independiente, deadlocked at 0-0 after an entertaining first leg.
The second leg in River’s El Monumental stadium continued much in the same way for the first half, as neither side could prize open the opposition’s stern defence.
The game was goalless at the break, but not without controversy. River centre-back Javier Pinola could easily have been sent off after half an hour when he left a boot hanging dangerously when making a sliding clearance.
He collided with Martín Benitez, and with VAR being a feature of the tournament in the latter stages, River waited anxiously until the referee signalled for play to restart from a throw-in.
Just as the majority of viewers resigned themselves to a penalty shootout, the game came alive in the second half for a memorable 45 minutes of football.
Firstly, Nacho Scocco poked home a through ball from Rafael Santos Borré to make it 1-0 to River on 47 minutes.
Seven minutes later however, their goalkeeper Franco Armani spilled a shot from Emmanuel Gigliotti and Silvio Romero was on hand to steer home the rebound for a lethal away goal, which put the reds on course for the semi-final.
Just as River looked like they would have to start panicking, up stepped the coolest head in town- Juan Fernando Quintero.
On 68 minutes, just ten minutes after coming off the bench, he weaved into a space on the edge of Independiente’s area, and planted a precision left-foot strike into the bottom corner.
— River Plate (@CARPoficial) October 3, 2018
As the game then stretched with the visitors playing for their survival in the competition, River were able to seal it with a goal on the counter-attack.
Youngster Nicolás De La Cruz teed up Rafael Borré, and the Colombian curled a right-footed shot into the far corner to send the 66,000 home fans into ecstasy.
— River Plate (@CARPoficial) October 3, 2018
Independiente dream of becoming the first team to win eight Copa Libertadores, but that is now on hold for another year.
Later that night, there was much less drama over in Porto Alegre where the second quarter-final was decided.
Reigning champions Grêmio held a solid 2-0 lead from the away leg verses Argentinian side Atlético Tucumán.
They were never likely to succumb to any unexpected shocks and ran in a routine 4-0 win, which looks ominous for the rest of the teams still dreaming of lifting the title.
The holders now face Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate in a titanic semi-final between a pair of three-time champions both looking capable of adding a fourth title to the trophy cabinet.
Atlético Tucuman can still count this as a relatively successful campaign having reached the last eight for the first time ever. Their efforts now switch to the domestic Superliga where they are amongst the early leaders, ahead of Boca Juniors and River Plate.
The third quarter-final in São Paulo also lacked any real tension, as Luis Scolari’s Palmeiras booked their place in the last four with a 2-0 home win over Colo Colo. Dudu scored a thumping strike for them, and Borja added a penalty.
Golaço do Dudu!!! 🇧🇷🔥
— #ThankYouDeuce (@JogaBonito_USA) October 4, 2018
This was a repeat of the first leg score, so the Verdão ease into the semis in search of the trophy that their level of investment demands.
As far as Colo Colo are concerned, it was a memorable year nevertheless, as it was the first time an entire generation of young Chilean fans had seen their team progress that far in the Libertadores. Their win over Brazilian champions Corinthians in the previous round was one of the shocks of 2018.
Over recent decades, Argentine and Brazilian giants have been able to make their financial muscle felt and turn the cup into an uneven playing field. This means Chilean, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan clubs rarely make it as far as they used to in their glorious past.
In the next round, Palmeiras will face an old foe in a repeat of a classic fixture from Libertadores history — Boca Juniors.
On Thursday night in Belo Horizonte, the Argentines were able to book their place in the last four at the expense of Cruzeiro. Following a controversial 2-0 home win two weeks ago, they secured a 1-1 draw during a tense and hard-fought match in the Mineirão.
Boca’s plan, with a two-goal lead in their pocket from the home leg in Buenos Aires, was largely to pack men behind the ball and stifle any Cruzeiro attacks.
This was very effective in a dull first half, but just before the hour mark substitute Sassa was able to scramble a goal from a corner and make the night very nervous for the travelling Argentine fans in the stadium and millions watching back home.
The Brazilians missed a series of half chances in a frantic ending, and well into stoppage time, the Argentines were able to break forward and young starlet Cristian Pavón smashed home the goal that secured their place in the last four.
It has been a chaotic year of Libertadores football from an organisational point of view, after a series of suspension scandals left the entire footballing public wary of CONMEBOL’s motives and capabilities.
However, one thing is for sure — the great trophy has its most romantic semi-finals for some time.
Four continental giants and previous winners will now do battle to see who can be crowned South American champion 2018, and travel to the World Club Cup in December for a shot at Real Madrid.
On one hand, the 2015 champions River Plate take on the 2017 winners Grêmio for a place in the 2018 final.
On the other, a repeat of the 2000 final and 2001 semi-final, which both ended in memorable victories for Boca.
To cap it all off, it is the first time ever there has been a Brazilian club vs an Argentine in both semi-finals.
The Argentine media is abuzz with speculation about what a Boca-River final would be like, but given the quality of the other semi-finalists, this hype is highly premature.
First legs to be played 23-25 October, return legs a week later.