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Copa Libertadores Preview: Argentina Prepares For Final Of The Century

Copa Libertadores Preview: Argentina Prepares For Final Of The Century

South America’s equivalent of the Champions League — The Copa Libertadores — has existed for 58 years.

After nearly six decades of continental football, one thing has never come to pass — the ultimate final between Argentina’s two biggest clubs — Boca Juniors and River Plate.

All that is about to change. The world-famous rivalry between the teams will take place on the biggest stage possible for the first time, as the Copa Libertadores final is played over two legs on November 10 and 24.

To put into context just how historic an event this is, it is only the third time that two teams from the same country have clashed in the final.

On both other occasions, two Brazilian clubs with no substantial rivalry met in 2005 and 2006. Never before has there been a local derby of any sort to decide the title.

In the Champions League (formerly European Cup) Real Madrid and Barcelona have never even met in a final, in spite of all their dominance.

Neither have Liverpool and Manchester United, or Inter and AC Milan, despite all the finals those great names have appeared in.

What awaits football fans in Latin America is very unique, and somehow poignant too, for this will be the last two-legged final with both clubs hosting one game each before the competition switches to a one-off showpiece on neutral territory as the finale from 2019.

Where do both clubs stand going into this game?

Boca, who will host the first leg in the Bombonera stadium, have had a tournament of two halves. They were poor in the group stage, but after scraping through to the knockout rounds, have disposed of each of their subsequent opponents scoring plenty of goals and built momentum as the tournament has progressed.

They reach the final on the back of knocking out a pair of Brazilian giants.

On Wednesday night in São Paulo, they fought out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Palmeiras, which added to the 2-0 home win, gave them a comfortable passage to the final.

The great irony of that tie is that both teams shared a group back when Boca were playing poorly at the start of the year. Palmeiras cruised to top spot, and actually held Boca’s fate in their hands in the final match.

If the São Paulo team had lost to Junior at home in match six, the Colombians would have sealed second spot in the group and condemned Boca to an early exit. That would have been embarrassing for the club given the investment they have made in this squad.

That was not to be however. Junior lost in Brazil that night in May, and destiny had something very different in store for both Boca and Palmeiras six months later, as the Argentines turned the tide on their old Brazilian foe.

Dario Benedetto’s thumping strike to make the semi-final second leg 2-2 on Wednesday night meant that the Boca watching fans back home could sit through the final minutes in triumphant mood looking forward to the final.

River Plate fans’ experience of the semi-final was entirely different.

On Tuesday night in Porto Alegre, Marcelo Gallardo’s side produced a legendary comeback that their fans will still be talking about for generations to come.

With less than 10 minutes left, reigning champions Grêmio were 1-0 up on the night and 2-0 up on aggregate, coasting towards a second consecutive final in front of their home fans.

Their back four had been solid throughout the tournament, and the excellent Geromel was marshalling a defensive wall that had River under tight control.

Out of nowhere, the visitors managed to win the match 2-1 and advance on away goals.

Firstly, Rafael Santos Borré brushed home an equaliser after 82 minutes. Then the real drama began.

In the 86th minute, what looked like a River corner was reexamined by the referee using VAR, where images showed the deflection coming from an outstretched arm.

The Uruguayan referee played it back several times, before dramatically pointing to the spot. This outraged the home team and forced a 10-minute delay on the waiting Gonzalo Martinez while the furious Grêmio players protested with the officials.

Once the delay was over and some level of calm restored, Martinez smashed home the penalty in the 95th minute and sent River to the final on away goals.

The comeback was complete, and wild scenes exploded back in Buenos Aires. For the Argentine media, all their Christmases had come at once.

The controversy did not end with the final whistle either, as yet another suspension scandal was added to the endless off-the-field drama of this year’s Copa.

River coach Marcelo Gallardo had received a one-match touchline ban just 24 hours before this second leg, and was banished to the stands.

However, this did not stop him brazenly entering the dressing room at half-time, as well as being in constant radio contact with the bench during the game.

Grêmio were alerted to this and made a formal complaint to CONMEBOL, asking for the result to be forfeited. The South American governing body have a history of awarding matches by decree.

After a few days of suspense, the organisers dismissed Grêmio’s claim and instead gave Gallardo a four-match ban and a $50,000 fine.

River’s inspirational manager will therefore not be on the touchline for the final, and will not even be allowed into the stadium to watch the first leg.

Now the broadcasters have their ‘final of the century’, who are favourites?

It’s difficult to choose an outright favourite in this clash of the titans. Most observers seem to feel Boca have a bigger and better squad than River, however Marcelo Gallardo has proven over recent months that he is getting the very best from his River players.

His opponent Guillermo Barros Schelotto still seems to occasionally have trouble figuring out his best XI and style of play.

There is a potential psychological advantage for River too. They have won the recent knockout clashes between the sides in the Copa Sudamericana in 2014, Copa Libertadores 2015, and Supercopa Argentina 2018. The most recent superclásico also went their way 2-0 in September.

Boca know they will be up against a deep defence and an energetic midfield press, which complicates their usual routes of attack, closing up any space behind the back line for their speedy attackers to exploit.

To add to that, River have specialised in hitting quickly on the counter in recent derbies, as Boca send men forward in an attempt to break their arch-rival’s defensive resistance.

The bad news for River is that their emblematic captain Leo Ponzio pulled a hamstring in the semi-final and will not be fit for Saturday’s first leg. He has already led the team to Libertadores glory in 2015 and his experience will be sorely missed for the first 90 minutes of this epic encounter.

The result is unpredictable, but one thing is certain: The tension and anticipation will reach unchartered levels in Buenos Aires in the coming weeks, as friends, families, colleagues and neighbours all have divided loyalties.

Nobody even wants to contemplate the idea of facing rival supporters in the office on the morning of Monday 26th in case of defeat.

For one side of the city, their wildest dreams are about to come true. For the other, it will be a living nightmare- and one they might have to wait another 58 years to avenge.

The first leg kicks off at 5pm Arg time on Saturday