Copa Libertadores final preview: Agony or ecstasy for Boca and River

And so it comes to this. The 2-2 draw in La Bombonera leaves no more room for second chances and one way or another on Saturday, the history of world football’s most famous rivalry changes forever. Tom Nash returns to preview the match of the ages…

The sense of excitement and anticipation is building in Buenos Aires, as in just a few days either River Plate or Boca Juniors will win the historic superclasico Libertadores final and be crowned South American champion for 2018.

The world was treated to a great spectacle last week in the opening match of the final, and with the tie delicately poised at 2-2, there are several factors which mean we could see a different second leg.

In terms of personnel, River will regain one key player, and also lose one.

Captain Leo Ponzio is now fully recovered from the hamstring tear he picked up in the semi-final in Brazil and is training for the game of his life on Nov 24th 

It’s an exaggeration to say this final will define his legacy, as “The Lion” has already lifted a whole range of trophies with River, including the Libertadores itself in 2015. Nevertheless, it does give him the chance to go down in history as arguably River’s most successful captain ever. On the verge of his 37th birthday, he will never play a game this big again. 

Another player River hoped to recover was Ignacio Scocco. He pulled his calf vs Estudiantes on Nov 3rd and will not recover fully in time. River were optimistic he would be fit for the big day but must now prepare alternatives. His presence would have been a massive boost for his team, as he has been arguably the club’s best outfield signing in the last couple of years. 

Scocco’s fitness took on extra significance after the 75th minute of the first leg. That was the moment River’s in-form Colombian striker Rafael Santos Borré was booked and therefore suspended for the second leg. Having scored in the closing minutes of the last 16 tie, the quarter-final, and the semi-final, his goalscoring instinct will be hugely missed by his team.

With Scocco and Borré now both out, Gallardo will have to look to his third and fourth choice striking partnerships. Far from ideal on such a big occasion. 

On the opposing side, Boca Juniors must also come to terms with a huge loss.

Star striker Cristian Pavón tore a hamstring in the first leg, and the 13-day gap between the two games makes it almost impossible for him to recover in time.

The good news for Guillermo Barros Schelotto is that he does have strength in depth in the forward department. A loss to a key midfielder may have been more damaging, as Boca can turn to Dario Benedetto or Carlos Tevez to replace Pavón, not to mention Mauro Zárate or Edwin Cardona.

After all, this Boca squad has no shortage of options as it was built for one purpose back in January and June – to win this trophy on Saturday.

On a tactical level, it remains to be seen if River manager Marcelo Gallardo will opt for the use of the 5-3-2 wing-back system he employed in La Bombonera. Pavón’s injury reduces the Boca threat coming from out wide, so that may play a part in his decision.

River’s emblematic coach is probably the most fascinating tactician in Argentina and is prone to designing custom-made formations for big occasions like this one.

The Barros Schelotto twins also have decisions to make. Do they try to replace Pavón like for like and play a 4-3-3, or will the lack of natural width force a change of system on Boca after playing the same formation for months?

The Xeneizes will also be able to count on first-choice goalkeeper Esteban Andrada again as he has returned from a broken jaw sustained vs Cruzeiro in the quarter-final. However, given that Rossi played well in the first leg, it’s unlikely Schelotto will risk a comeback so hastily.

There could also be psychological factors that play a part in this final.

In recent years, the away sides have performed surprisingly well in Argentina’s most high-profile match. No team has recorded a home win versus their bitter enemy since May 2015.

River will have 65,000 raucous fans roaring them on for the most important game in their history, but Boca do have one slight advantage. With the second leg taking place in El Monumental, the away team do not have to fear the nightmare scenario of their mortal enemy parading the trophy around their stadium. That is what is in store for River if they cannot win this game.

Many speculate on whether this thought could lead to a more hesitant River, more afraid of losing than intent on winning. 

The historical omens are good for the home team at least. El Millonario won the last Libertadores head-to-head in the Monumental in 2015 with a Carlos Sanchez penalty, and are 7-3 up in superclasicos in their home stadium in this competition.

Boca on the other hand have enjoyed their recent league trips to El Monumental, winning three of their last four away derbies.

This very statistic poses River coach Marcelo Gallardo a dilemma. The instinct will be to go out and attack their rivals in front of a partisan home crowd, but they must do so with caution. Boca’s squad is packed with speedy attackers who would revel in the extra space afforded to them if River commit men forward.

Away goals do not count in this tie, so the chances of a long evening including extra-time and penalties are high given the score is currently level.

As with any big Libertadores night, drama, passion, glory, and bitter disappointment are all guaranteed in equal measure. If you watch only one game of football in the next 12 months, make it this one. 

The action kicks off at 1700 local time (GMT-3) on Saturday.

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

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