River Plate supporters were denied the opportunity to celebrate victory at the Monumental in last year’s Copa Libertadores final and while the famous win in Madrid has become part of Millonario folklore, it wasn’t home. Tuesday’s semi-final Superclásico repeat was the closest that this year’s tournament could offer, given the switch to a one-off final at a neutral venue, and Marcelo Gallardo’s side ensured it was a fitting celebration with a comfortable first leg win over Boca Juniors.
It could have been worse for Boca, who arrived at the Monumental with the same mindset that saw them restrict River to a goalless draw in the league only a few weeks ago.
The defensive Gustavo Alfaro selected a similar eleven to that afternoon with a packed central midfield and Franco Soldano filling in on the right of the 4-5-1. However, opposite number Marcelo Gallardo appeared in no mood to allow any repetition and with Nicolás De La Cruz shaking off injury to start, River had the perfect weapons to expose Boca – pace and width.
Boca’s best performances in recent weeks have come away in the Libertadores with clean sheet wins over Athletico Paranaense and Liga de Quito but that game-plan went out the window within minutes at the Monumental.
The virtually unbeatable Esteban Andrada parried a De La Cruz effort and as Rafael Santos Borré tried to latch onto the rebound, the Colombian tumbled under a challenge. Referee Rafael Claus waved away initial appeals but with the assistance of VAR saw that while there was nothing wrong with Carlos Izquierdoz’s tackle, Emmanuel Mas’ simultaneous clumsy attempt had tripped Santos Borré. Only Andrada could prevent the worst possible start for Boca and the Argentina goalkeeper was helpless to stop Santos Borré’s powerfully struck penalty.
With the early breakthrough, the Monumental was rocking even more and River remained in the ascendancy. Ramón Ábila, up front for Boca, was an isolated figure forced to battle with Javier Pinola for a series of long balls upfield yet even with such a limited tactic, Boca carved open a wonderful chance to equalise just before half time. Ábila broke in behind, shrugged off Milton Casco and squared for Nicolás Capaldo, the 21-year-old just needing to keep his cool to slot past Franco Armani but instead blazing over the crossbar.
It was by far and away Boca’s best moment as River’s dominance after the break only became more pronounced. A goal-line scramble preserved only the one-goal deficit but a second River goal seemed only a matter of time.
Attempting to change things by introducing Carlos Tevez, to the loud jeers of the locals, Alfaro was praying that the Boca icon could once more silence the Monumental. Those prayers were short-lived. A wonderful passing move saw Nacho Fernández slip the ball wide for Matías Suárez and the ‘best player in Argentina’ according to Juan Román Riquelme continued his run into the six-yard box to receive the ball back and tap in.
River were enjoying themselves now and an audacious lob attempt from Suárez required Andrada to tip the ball over. While Alfaro threw on Eduardo Salvio and Mauro Zárate it was Nacho Scocco making far more of an impact up front for River.
Unable to find the third that their performance probably deserved River supporters were given one final reason to cheer, Capaldo sent off in stoppage time for a foul on Enzo Pérez to compound Boca’s miserable evening.
At two-nil the tie isn’t yet over but it will take a historic performance at La Bombonera in three weeks if Boca are to overturn the deficit and take their place in the Copa Libertadores final.
— CONMEBOL Libertadores (@Libertadores) October 2, 2019