Just when it looked as though River Plate’s luck had run out and the highly anticipated prospect of a Superclásico Copa Libertadores had faded, Marcelo Gallardo’s side came back from the death to snatch a dramatic victory over Grêmio.
Brazilian football has already felt victimised by CONMEBOL in this year’s tournament and Grêmio will no doubt point to referee Andrés Cunha’s VAR-assisted decision to award River a stoppage time penalty but in truth the holders’ negative approach got what it deserved.
Gonzalo Martínez kept his cool after a lengthy delay of protests and security checks to send Marcelo Grohe the wrong way and with it put River Plate ahead in the tie on away goals.
The somewhat harsh handball against defender Bressan coming only minutes after Rafael Santos Borré had nodded River a goal back to set up the grandstand ending.
Up until that moment, River, for all their superiority, didn’t look like breaching the resolute Grêmio backline and just as they had done in the Monumental, the Brazilians looked to have snatched a one-goal win.
Having done virtually nothing other than defend for the opening 45 minutes, Leonardo Gomes’ volley from the edge of the box had given Grêmio the lead on the night. This, with their first leg advantage, had put the champions firmly in control.
Marcelo Gallardo, banned from the touchline in Porto Alegre, flagrantly ignored his ban and aside from radioing down to his assistant Matías Biscay throughout opted to go down to the changing room at half time hoping that a baseball cap and coat would see his visit go unnoticed.
Such brazen disregard will further anger Grêmio but in truth it appeared to make little difference for much of the second half. The Brazilians looked to run the clock down, River huffed and puffed but amid a string of fouls, the game lost much of its fluency.
The best chance actually fell to substitute Everton but when through on goal, Franco Armani denied the forward one-on-one. What a decisive moment that proved to be.
Grêmio’s missed opportunity to take a three-goal aggregate lead was soon punished by Santos Borré and the tie turned.
Martínez’s penalty set up a tense, extended period of stoppage time as Grêmio’s cramps and time-wasting made way for chaotic balls forward. However, River held firm and in the driving rain at the Grêmio Arena, Los Millonarios claimed a famous win.
All eyes now look to the other semi final as Boca Juniors look to defend their first leg lead against Palmeiras. If Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side can do a better job than Grêmio of holding that advantage, one of world football’s greatest derbies will take place in the final of one of the greatest tournaments on earth.