It was long, drawn-out, and controversial, but on Sunday night in Madrid, River Plate were crowned winners of the historic Superclasico final of the Copa Libertadores, bringing to an end one of the most stressful and chaotic ties in the history of Argentine football.
The final was plagued with controversy right from day one, but 39 days after the Boca-River matchup was confirmed, it eventually produced an emphatic winner 7,000 miles from Buenos Aires in the iconic Bernabéu stadium.
River, the home side in theory after this match was moved to Europe, started the game poorly. Injuries and suspensions deprived them of their main attacking options, so they opted to play a 4-5-1 with two support midfielders for lone striker Lucas Pratto.
Their attacking moves were disjointed during the first half, as passes were constantly misplaced and teammates were out of sync.
Boca, without playing brilliantly, looked the better side, and a couple of chances fell to captain Pablo Perez to open the scoring.
The midfielder failed to convert them, but the next clear chance on 44 minutes fell to Boca’s main man Dario Benedetto, and the outcome was very different.
After another uncoordinated River attack broke down just before the interval, Boca were able to counter, and Uruguayan midfielder Nahitan Nández played a through-ball akin to those that Luka Modric or Toni Kroos regularly play on that pitch.
He carved River’s centre-backs open, and when Benedetto was left one-on-one with goalkeeper Franco Armani, he gave Boca a precious 1-0 lead.
River’s assistant coach Matias Biscay, standing in for suspended Marcelo Gallardo, must have found some words of inspiration at half-time, as River came out for the second half with much greater conviction.
Their moves were suddenly much faster and more incisive, and they were beginning to create chances.
After 68 minutes, shortly after Juan Fernando Quintero replaced River captain Ponzio, El Millonario finally unlocked Boca.
A slick one-two between Fernandez and Palacios put the ball on a plate for Lucas Pratto, who with a simple right-foot swing scored the most vital goal of his career.
The remainder of the 90 minutes flowed backwards and forwards, and set pulses racing dangerously high back home in Argentina.
Boca had a serious of promising free-kicks, including an indirect one in the area, but were unable to regain the lead.
The clash of the titans fittingly, and perhaps inevitably, finished all square at 3-3 after 180 minutes.
Just two minutes into extra-time however, came the turning point. One of the great rivals was able to get the decisive upper hand on their old foe.
Wilmar Barrios, Boca’s usually reliable midfield rock, made a clumsy foul on Exequiel Palacios. It was a yellow card offence in the eyes of the Uruguayan referee- his second in just five minutes. Boca were condemned to see out extra-time with ten men.
River naturally took the initiative with their numerical advantage, but the game reached half-time of extra-time still level.
Boca could not hold out much longer though, the tide had turned. River had both a psychological and physical advantage, and began to grind their opponents down with some sustained possession.
After 109 minutes, the most important moment in River Plate’s history arrived. The team worked an opening for Quintero to unleash one of his left-foot rockets from the edge of the box, which crashed in off the underside of the crossbar leaving Andrada no chance in goal. Wild celebrations erupted both in Madrid and Buenos Aires.
Boca, to their credit, were not done. Despite being two men light after Fernando Gago limped off with a potentially career-ending Achilles injury, they sent men forward as River wasted chance after chance to kill the game and run down the clock.
In the frantic final minute Boca hit the post. They then sent up every single player- including goalkeeper Andrada- for the resulting corner.
Franco Armani was able to punch the ball away from danger, and a River break lead to Gonzalo Martinez sprinting the length of the Bernabéu pitch alone to tap the ball into an empty net and wrap up the title making it 3-1.
There never has been, and never will be, a more iconic scene in Argentine club football.
The game was over. The seemingly never-ending battle of Argentina’s heavyweights had finally produced a decisive knockout blow at the end of the 12th round. Eternal glory awaits this set of River Plate players, and a wound that will take some time to heal awaits Boca Juniors.
On the plus side for the sport as a whole, Argentine football was able to mend some of its damaged reputation.
The 120 minutes of football were not of the quality they might have been, but the first three goals included real flashes of brilliance. Furthermore, the passion, drama, and unpredictability which are hallmarks of the Copa were not lacking either. The game passed off peacefully off the pitch too thankfully.
So what next?
For River Plate, an onward journey straight to United Arab Emirates to play in the Club World Cup, a trophy which is viewed very prestigiously by South Americans. Their semi-final will be against an Asian or Australasian team on 18 December, before a potential dream final vs Real Madrid if both teams advance.
There will be some rebuilding to do in January too as key figures such as Gonzalo Martinez and Exequiel Palacios look set for lucrative new challenges abroad.
For Boca, much soul searching lies ahead. The club invested heavily in this squad with the sole aim of winning the Libertadores for the first time in 11 years but came up short.
The Xeneizes have had plenty of domestic success in recent years, but their demanding fanbase craves the continental and global success that was customary ten or fifteen years ago. It’s almost a certainty that Guillermo Barros Schelotto will leave the dugout now, and president Daniel Angelici will look to appoint a new first team coach.
The 2018 Copa Libertadores was marred by multiple scandals due to the inept governance of CONMEBOL, but at least the tournament ended with superb goals and jaw-dropping drama on the pitch. How the tournament desperately needs the footballers to make the headlines instead of off-the-field issues in future.
River and Boca will both feature in the Copa Libertadores 2019 draw that takes place on December 17th in Paraguay.