River Plate’s path to the 2018 Copa Libertadores

The Copa Libertadores represents the pinnacle of South American football, there is nothing that tops it but for River Plate lifting the famous trophy with victory over fierce rivals Boca Juniors made it even sweeter. This year’s tournament may be one to forget for many neutrals but for supporters of Los Millonarios it will be an eternal triumph. Tom Nash returns to take a look back on River’s road to glory…

Matchday 1

River’s Copa Libertadores dream got underway on a hot summer night in Rio de Janeiro in February. They faced a Flamengo team that was forced to play behind closed doors in Botafogo’s ground after disturbances during the 2017 Copa Sudamericana final vs Independiente at the Maracanã.

River were a team in crisis at that point, still reeling from their disastrous 2017 semi-final exit to Lanús. They had just set a club record of six consecutive away defeats in the league, and confidence was rock bottom.

This game was a turning point however, the first in a club record 32-game unbeaten run that lasted from February until October. Camilo Mayada scored a late equaliser from long range to claim a 2-2 draw that River barely deserved.

Matchday 2

Independiente de Santa Fe of Bogotá were the first visitors to Núñez in the 2018 edition. The Colombians physical and defensive game plan led to a very frustrating and ugly game which ended goalless.

Opening with two draws was no catastrophe, but River were suddenly under pressure to record a win.

Matchday 3

The team’s second away trip was against Emelec, in the baking Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil, a fixture River had won the previous year.

Gallardo’s team managed to grind out a 1-0 win with a Pinola header. Franco Armani made his first notable contribution to the run with a great one-on-one save.

The team was still performing averagely but was at least up and running.

Matchday 4

The next fixture saw the Ecuadorians visit El Monumental. As expected, River were able to get the three points with a thumping strike from Lucas Pratto and a delightful chip from Pity Martinez. Emelec pulled a goal back but lost 2-1.

Matchday 5

The fifth group game, away to Santa Fe in Bogotá, gave River a chance to secure qualification for the second round. The game was played in the altitude of the Andes, conditions that are always tricky for Buenos Aires sides used to playing down at sea level. Gallardo showed the first glimpse of his tactical qualities, choosing a 5-4-1 formation with three central defenders.

The game plan worked perfectly, as River played conservatively and picked up a 1-0 win through another Pratto goal.

Matchday 6

The final game of the group stage was a flat affair between River and Flamengo in Buenos Aires in May. Both teams had qualified already, and River held out for the 0-0 that guaranteed them first spot. Armani, Quintero, and eventually Enzo Perez then departed for the World Cup in Russia.

Last 16

The second round draw for the 2018 Libertadores was simply epic, pitting ex-champions from all over the continent against each other in fascinating matchups. No tie was more exciting than the Racing-River derby scheduled for August.

River managed to hold out for a 0-0 draw away in El Cilindro after captain Leonardo Ponzio was sent off before half-time. Racing pressed but Armani stood tall.

The return leg in Núñez produced River’s best display of the entire tournament, and confirmed that they were one of the favourites for the crown.

Gallardo’s side played with an intensity and precision in attack that Coudet’s Racing could not handle. Goals from Pratto and Palacios powered River 2-0 ahead inside 25 minutes, and Rafael Santos Borré began a critical scoring run with a late goal to seal a 3-0 win.

Quarter-final

After eliminating one of Avellaneda’s grandes River now faced the other – Independiente.

As anticipated, this was a very tight match between two of South America’s most tactically astute teams. The first leg was entertaining. Independiente created chances but could not produce a goal after Franco Armani made an astonishing save from Emmanuel Gigliotti.

Over at River, the second leg opened up after a tense first half. Nacho Scocco scored his only goal of the 2018 Copa, but Silvio Romero responded immediately putting Independiente ahead on away goals. River were 25 minutes away from going out, and needed some inspiration. Up stepped Juan Fernando Quintero from the edge of the box with a precision left-foot strike to put El Millonario ahead. Independiente surged frantically for another equaliser, and in doing so, were exploited on the counter. Borré curled a shot past Martin Campaña in the final minutes to send River through to the last four.

No review of that game would be complete without mentioning that Javier Pinola was very lucky to escape a red card early on after sliding in on Martin Bentiez with a boot dangerously high. The Reds were knocked out and left fuming at that particular decision.

Semi-final

The semi-final of the Copa set up two mouth-watering Argentina vs Brazil clashes – Boca Juniors vs Palmeiras, and River Plate vs Grêmio.

Grêmio, the reigning champions, put on a defensive display in El Monumental that the best Italian sides of the 90s would have been content with. Renato Gaucho set out to allow the hosts no space at all, and nick a goal on the counter, which is exactly what they did. Michel headed in from a corner to give the visitors a 1-0 lead to take back to Brazil.

The second leg in Porto Alegre goes down as one of the most legendary nights in River Plate’s history. The team started the match very promisingly, with greater purpose and incision than at home. They were unlucky then, for a corner to be deflected into the path of Leonardo Gomes, whose finish gave Grêmio a 1-0 lead (2-0 agg). The champions frustrated El Millonario for the second half, running the clock down very effectively. With ten minutes to go, River were goalless and nearly out.

Then, a ray of light shone on Gallardo’s team, enough to stir the resilience that the coach had instilled in his players over the past year. Santos Borré was free to bundle home a cross after 82 minutes and give his team real hope. Then, just five minutes later, a Scocco shot was deflected over for a corner. Or at least, what seemed a corner at first glance.

The Copa Libertadores does drama like no other competition, and this moment was amongst its most explosive of the season. Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha reviewed the move via VAR and noticed a handball. Remarkably, River had the chance to score a second from the spot with three minutes remaining and reach the final. Gonzalo Martinez finally converted the penalty after much squabbling, and El Millonario snatched an iconic victory from the jaws of defeat. Grêmio were dethroned in front of their stunned fans, and River set up the final the continent had waited 58 years for – a Superclásico vs Boca Juniors.

The drama rumbled on for a week after the game, as Marcelo Gallardo had entered the dressing room at half-time when he was supposed to be serving a suspension. Grêmio wanted to claim a forfeit, but CONMEBOL opted to give Gallardo a fine and extended ban. River-Boca was on, and it was controversial before it even started.

Final

The “super final”, the “mega final”, the “final of the world”. The Argentine media ran out of superlatives in the run-up to the Boca-River Libertadores final of 2018. On the back of unprecedented hype and hysteria, the first leg was postponed 24 hours due to torrential storms in Buenos Aires, but when the action did get underway, it did not disappoint.

The match flowed backwards and forwards in a surprisingly open encounter. River twice struck from behind to cancel out Boca’s two goals, and Armani denied Benedetto a winner in the last minute. The result was 2-2, and the Copa was to be decided at El Monumental. That is what we all thought at the time anyway, but no one foresaw the disgraceful scenes that were to unfold on November 24th.

After the infamous attack on Boca’s team bus by River supporters, the return leg was postponed twice, and then eventually moved to Madrid in a shameless act of disrespect to the competition by CONMEBOL.

The 2018 Copa Libertadores was finally decided on December 9 over 7,000 miles from both teams’ home city. It was another superb encounter that flowed one way then the other, before finally finishing 1-1 and going to extra-time. Wilmar Barrios’ red card afforded River the space they needed for Juan Fernando Quintero to strike from the edge of the area, before Pity Martinez ran the length of the pitch to tap into the empty net after Boca committed every man forward in search of a 120th minute equaliser.

River had done it. Marcelo Gallardo had led his beloved club to a second Libertadores crown in his four-year cycle, the fourth in the team’s history. This one, the first ever Superclásico final, will still be talked about even in 100 years in Núñez.

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

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