It’s only a little over a month since River Plate were celebrating their greatest ever triumph in Madrid but after their subsequent Club World Cup defeat and a short break, the Copa Libertadores champions were back in Superliga action on Saturday. One of four games in-hand, River were now looking to close the gap on the leaders but were dealt an early blow in 2019 by the still, ever so impressive Defensa y Justicia.
Sebastián Beccacece’s side resumed the year in second, the only unbeaten side in the top flight, and without having lost any of their talented youngsters during the window travelled to the Monumental full of confidence.
That much was clear from the outset. Well drilled and disciplined Defensa y Justicia harried and pressed their sluggish hosts and Nicolás Fernández proved a constant nuisance to the River backline. A bouncing header had drawn a flying save from Franco Armani and a snapshot from the edge of the box skidded past the post as the visitors looked the more likely opening scorers.
That breakthrough came midway through the first half when Matías Rojas’ low free-kick took a touch off the wall and beat a slightly wrong footed Armani. The Paraguayan midfielder another fine example of a player who looks transformed since arriving in Florencio Varela – seven goals in eleven appearances and this his third free-kick of the campaign.
Despite being far from their best River should have been level at the break. Rafael Santos Borré, so decisive in front of goal during the Copa Libertadores campaign, fired wide with only Ezequiel Unsain to beat during stoppage time and it was the closest the home side came to unlocking the visitors.
Dominant after half time in terms of possession, River lacked ideas and the responsibility of creativity lying with Juan Fernando Quintero made Defensa y Justicia comfortable in snuffing out danger. Captain Alexander Barboza and Lisandro Martínez have proved one of the top central defensive pairings in the league and were never going to be undone by what Gallardo’s side had to offer at this early stage of the year.
With the win Defensa y Justicia close the gap behind Racing to just three points and El Halcón’s unlikely title challenge has to be taken seriously while River clearly have plenty still to do in the transfer window if they are to make substantial improvements.