Tom Nash takes a closer look at the big one in this year’s Copa Libertadores last 16 – two massively improved sides of the past six months, River Plate against Racing Club promises fireworks…
Argentina’s five biggest clubs- River Plate, Boca Juniors, Racing, Independiente, and San Lorenzo- have a history of playing each other which stretches so far back that clashes between them are simply known in Argentina as clásicos. No translation needed.
On Monday 4 June, the continent’s greatest clubs eagerly awaited the second round draw of the Copa Libertadores in Paraguay, knowing that the chances of a clásico coming out of the hat were high, with Boca, Racing, and Independiente all amongst the eight opponents that River Plate could end up facing in the second round.
The Argentine media were already preemptively building up a potential Superclásico between River and Boca, but they were left disappointed on that front.
They weren’t left entirely empty-handed though, as one clásico did get drawn- that was Racing vs River Plate.
The blockbuster tie will take place on 9th and 29th of August, with Racing hosting the first leg of what will prove to be yet another epic all-Argentinian clash in continental knockouts.
The tie is very tricky to call. River Plate are perhaps marginal favourites, but both teams will rate their chances whilst being well aware they have a tough draw at hand.
River Plate broke for the World Cup in the best form in the land. They are currently 19 games unbeaten, a run that led them to win their Libertadores group containing Flamengo, and powered them up the league, finishing just one point outside next season’s Libertadores qualification spots despite atrocious form early in the year.
24 Feb: River lose away to Velez, setting a 78 year record for consecutive away losses.
28 Feb: River begin a 19-game unbeaten run taking in the Libertadores, Supercopa, Superliga, and Copa Argentina.
Much of this good form was built around their big summer signings. Franco Armani was superb in goal, Juan Fernando Quintero was skillful in the creative department, and Lucas Pratto continues to grow into his number 9 role after a record transfer fee.
River may well be hampered at left-back however by the departure of Marcelo Saracchi to the Bundesliga. Fans are hoping they will find an adequate replacement quickly, but there are no signs that will happen at the moment and Milton Casco is currently playing in that position.
Further departures are expected from River before the end of August. It remains to be seen how detrimental these will be to the club’s plans.
Across town, Eduardo Coudet has slowly been building a Racing side adept at the high intensity pressing game his teams are renowned for.
They were in a great position to finish fifth in the league in May and thus guarantee qualification for next year’s Copa Libertadores, but ended the campaign in poor form and missed a golden chance, losing the final game when qualification was at their mercy.
Their attack will be impacted by the departure of Argentine football’s upcoming star Lautaro Martínez who has just left for Italian giants Inter. Coudet’s main priority for this transfer window is to use the considerable funds this sale generated to replace Martinez’s pace and threat going forward.
His first move was a shrewd one, opting to bring back the excellent Gustavo Bou from Mexico for a second spell at the club. He is lining up against his former club River, something which Argentines always believe brings bad omens for the player’s old side.
Just last week they lost another key player ‘Pulpo’ Gonzalez to Xolos. This will weaken their midfield.
Coudet will also hope to recover Ricardo Centurión in his best shape following appendicitis. His Boca connection means this tie has an extra special edge for him, and when the star is fully fit and focused, he is without doubt one of the most potent attacking threats in the Argentine game.
It must be said that two big caveats hang over this tie.
The first one is the summer transfer window. Argentine teams have grown used to losing their best players at this time of year, as much wealthier clubs abroad scour South America looking for emerging talent.
This often causes huge upheaval for sides and leaves them little time to rebuild before the window shuts. River Plate know this all too well after losing star striker Lucas Alario in the final days of August 2017, a move which contributed to River’s shortcomings later that year.
River and Racing both have players who could be potential targets for much richer clubs in Europe or Mexico before the end of August, so their fans will be crossing their fingers and praying the squads are not picked apart just as the Libertadores is reaching its crucial phase.
On River’s side, fans are paying close attention to Pity Martinez, a left-footed playmaker who is constantly linked with moves abroad. Sources close to the player have long indicated the European summer of 2018 may well be the time he makes the move across the Atlantic, and rumours constantly surface that Sporting Lisbon or Lazio are considering paying his €15m buyout clause.
Meanwhile in Russia, Juan Fernando Quintero’s performances for Colombia attracted attention from some famous European names, so fans at El Monumental will be desperate to see him still in Buenos Aires when August ends. His precision passing was critical to help beat numerous opponents who might otherwise have held on for a draw earlier this year.
Nacho Fernández is another midfielder who is being monitored closely abroad, so the sale of one of those three names is possible for the sake of balancing the books.
On Racing’s side, Lautaro Martínez, Pulpo González, and goalkeeper Juan Musso have already made moves to Italy and Mexico respectively, and others cannot be ruled out, which would cause another headache for Eduardo Coudet. Word coming out of the club also indicates that the manager is frustrated by the lack of singings.
On July 26, Coudet received more bad news, as it was announced that new signing Mauricio Martínez had suffered a cruciate ligament injury. This will rule him out well into 2019, which may force the club back into the transfer market again.
The second caveat is the curious timing of this tie.
In 2017, the Libertadores moved to a new calendar which mirrors the Brazilian domestic season of February to November, whereas the final had previously been played in July.
Argentina, just like much of the world, is in pre-season mode in early August following the long international break. The fact that the knockout rounds of the continent’s premier competition fall at this time is far from ideal, as teams are still working on recovering fitness and integrating new players into the squad.
At this stage, it’s difficult to say which team this favours- perhaps neither. River do have a slight advantage in one way as they played a couple of competitive games versus lower league opponents in the Copa Argentina in late July and have therefore gotten their competitive semester underway. Racing on the other hand, have not played a competitive match since late May, so will be going straight in at the deep end on August 9.
AFA, or perhaps even CONMEBOL, should work on avoiding this inconvenience in future- more because it risks damaging the quality of the spectacle than actually giving an advantage to any team in particular.
Overall, this tie is extremely tough to call. Whoever can emerge unscathed from the remaining weeks of the daunting transfer window and snap out of “pre-season mode” quicker will have a significant advantage.
One thing is for certain though- all the colour, passion, and drama associated with an Argentine clásico will be in full flow during this tie. We have over a century of evidence to back up that prediction.
Tom Nash is an avid River follower living in Buenos Aires who runs the @Carp_English twitter account