When Jorge Wilstermann eliminated Atlético Mineiro in the Round of 16 of the Copa Libertadores, many River Plate supporters, and perhaps even players, coaches, and directors, breathed a sigh of relief. Mineiro had been one of the in form sides of the competition and avoiding them seemed to open up River’s path to the Final for the second time in three years.
Yet things change quickly in football and for River, a massive change came with the shock transfer of center forward Lucas Alario to Bayer Leverkusen, who executed the player’s buyout clause.
Alario chose to accept the German outfit’s offer, against River’s wishes, causing anger from directors and fans alike. In what appears to be pure spite, River have still yet to send the player’s transfer to Leverkusen, and Alario has yet to makes his debut in the Bundesliga. The German club is appealing to FIFA to make the transfer go through.
Alario’s departure did more than just create chaos in the boardroom. On the field the club lost its best and most decisive player, during the same transfer period his strike partner Sebastián Driussi left to join Zenit St. Petersburg. In total River knew they would need to replace 46 goals the two young forwards accounted for over the past year. These untimely departures combined with Rodrigo Mora’s long-term hip problem and yet another injury set back for Marcelo Larrondo mean that River were left with just three forwards: Ignacio Scocco, Carlos Auzqui, and young Colombian Rafael Santos Borré.
Despite the loss of Alario, no one in River could have predict the disastrous 3-0 result the club picked up in Cochabamba against Jorge Wilstermann last week. River did control the play for most of the match, but lacked not only finishing, but fluency and link up play. Borré was particularly off the pace, unable to connect on various crosses that just needed to be pushed across the goal line and shanking one memorable cross out of play with Scocco streaking down the middle. Scocco himself was very poor, missing a few chances, one in particular with the empty net at his disposal from just a yard out.
Scocco is a player who River have long sought after – ever since he declared his fanaticism for the Nuñez club back in 2010. Yet time and again the striker got away until now- at the age of 32. Although he is clearly still a very useful striker, having already found the net twice in the Argentine Superliga and once more in the Libertadores on his debut against Guaraní, it remains to be seen if he can lead the line for a Libertadores winning club.
Borré is at the opposite stage of his career as Scocco, having signed from Atlético Madrid after spending last season on loan at Villareal. River coach Marcelo Gallardo stated in the media his idea had been to bring Borré along little by little as he adapted to his new teammates and the physical nature of Argentine and Libertadores football. With Alario’s last second exit, that plan was thrown out the wind and Borré has been pushed into the limelight.
River fans may draw hope from the fact the both Borré and Auzqui found the net in a 3-1 victory over San Martín de San Juan. It is not yet clear which player will start, but it is certain that both will be needed if River are able to send the match to penalties with a 3-0 victory, or win it outright by winning by four clear goals.
Yet the team must also look to its defensive frailties. It’s true that Wilstermann did not attack much, but they managed to score three times and had two more goals chalked off for offside. While both goals were rightly disallowed, the margin was minimal and not down to River playing a disciplined off side trap.
Young Uruguayan Marcelo Saracchi, who has been fantastic in his first two matches in the Superliga, is not eligible as he joined too late to be included in the Libertadores squad for the quarter-final, meaning the much maligned Milton Casco keeps his spot. Also nerve racking is the form of veteran keeper Germán Lux, who has looked anything but the safe pair of hands he was supposed to be when signed by Deportivo La Coruña in late June.
River does however have a near perfect record against Bolivian clubs at home: 13 victories and just one draw. Only 18 months ago, River toppled The Strongest 6-0 in El Monumental, a result that would be more than enough to see the Millonarios go through on Thursday night. Yet such is the fluctuating landscape of Argentine football that the only player who started that match that will be available for selection against Wilstermann is Ignacio Fernández.
Many River fans will also remember a famous victory over Botafogo in the 2007 Copa Sudamericana with Radamel Falcao netting a hat-trick. Playing with ten men and needing three goals in the final 15 minutes, River pulled of the amazing come back as Falcao grabbed the winner in stoppage time.
Yet a fresher memory also springs to mind, when River were unable to overcome a 2-0 deficit against Independiente del Valle despite controlling the match from start to finish, finishing 72% possession, 34 shots, 12 on target, forcing 11 saves from Independiente keeper Librado Azcona.
On Thursday River will hope for better finishing and a goalkeeper not in top form so that perhaps Borré can emulate his compatriot Falcao by being a hero on an international night in Nuñez.
River Plate host Jorge Wilstermann on Thursday evening with kick off at 7:15pm; a place in the Copa Libertadores semi final is at stake