Copa Libertores semi final preview: Two heavyweight Argentina v Brazil clashes

The Copa Libertadores comes down to a pair colossal semi finals between a group of continental heavyweights,Tom Nash returns to preview the games…

Here we are again at the end of October, with four Latin American teams dreaming of lifting the Copa Libertadores and flying to the World Club Cup to potentially face Real Madrid in December.

There is however a slightly different look to the semi-finals this time around. Most editions of the great competition produce a ‘surprise package’ alongside a collection of Brazilian and Argentine heavyweights. This is usually either a team from a smaller footballing nation like Paraguay or Ecuador, or a lesser fancied side from the countries that traditionally dominate, like Lanús in 2017.

This year there is no room for the romance of a giant killer. There are no Davids left, just Goliaths.

Only four of the continent’s most famous names remain – a battle between a quartet of clubs that have won 13 Libertadores between them: River Plate, Grêmio, Boca Juniors, and Palmeiras.

The action will get underway in Buenos Aires on Tuesday night, as Marcelo Gallardo’s River Plate welcome the holders Grêmio to El Monumental.

It is difficult to single out a favourite in this tie. It pitches a River side who were on a 32-game unbeaten run until they fielded a weakened side on Friday night vs Colón, against a Grêmio side which is largely still the same group of players who lifted the trophy this time last year.

Both sides have managed to produce solid defensive displays as well as some excellent attacking football in this year’s cup.

The focus going into this tie surrounds injuries and fitness, with many of the two teams’ top players recovering from different knocks and strains.

The home side seem to be emerging from a spate of injuries to key players just in time for this showdown. Star men Exequiel Palacios, Gonzalo Martinez, and Franco Armani have all been cleared to play in a tie that they would probably have missed had it fallen a week earlier.

Most of River’s defensive solidity is based around goalkeeper Armani, who has been terrific since signing. They cannot afford for him to be missing as he is simply irreplaceable.

The Brazilians have a similar set of worries. Goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe, and playmakers Luan and Everton have all been in the treatment room recently, and it seems likely that only the goalkeeper will definitely recover fully in time to play in Argentina. Grêmio coach Renato Gaúcho hopes to recover the other two stars in time for the return leg in Porto Alegre next week.

The loss of Luan and Everton may be so significant that it even forces a tactical change on the manager, as their attacking fluency will surely be impacted.

Much less doubt surrounds Wednesday’s glamorous Boca-Palmeiras semi-final. Both teams will have largely fit squads.

Boca’s main concern is how to handle a serious injury to their first-choice goalkeeper Esteban Andrada, who broke his jaw in a controversial clash with Cruzeiro’s Dede in the quarter-final.

The club rushed to bring in a quality alternative in Bolivian Carlos Lampe, but it seems as though manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto will stick with Agustín Rossi, who has played most of this tournament but not always provided Boca supporters with the reassurance they need.

Elsewhere he will have to choose from the glut of quality forwards at his disposal to form a front three for this tie. Cristian Pavón in the only man really guaranteed to start. Stars like Edwin Cardona, Carlos Tevez, and Mauro Zárate will have to await their coach’s decision on Wednesday.

The Argentine giants have assembled a very strong squad in order to try to win the cup this year. They seem to have underperformed somewhat in some people’s eyes, despite brushing aside Cruzeiro 3-1 in the quarter-final.

After years of domestic domination, only the sweet taste of continental success will keep their demanding fans happy this time around.

As for Palmeiras, they have settled into a nice rhythm since Luis Felipe Scolari returned.

He has made the Verdão more solid in defence, and has been rotating the deep squad at his disposal very effectively. They sit top of the Brasileirão and are many people’s favourites to lift the Libertadores having won all five away games in this year’s edition.

They beat their old foe Boca Juniors in the group stage back in April, but will have to perform the same feat again if they are to finally take revenge for the epic 2001 semi-final that Boca won on penalties in São Paulo.

The games kick off at 21:45 Arg/Bra time on Tuesday and Wednesday nights

Tom Nash is an avid River follower living in Buenos Aires who runs the @Carp_English twitter account

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