It will take arguably the greatest night of Marcelo Gallardo’s tenure if River Plate are to reach the Copa Libertadores final next week in São Paulo after suffering a 3-0 first leg defeat to Palmeiras. An error strewn display was ruthlessly exploited by the free-scoring Brazilians leaving River with what might just be an insurmountable task.
The semi-final showdown between the tournament’s two leading scorers promised an intriguing battle that many suggest will eventually deliver this year’s champion and in the opening stages it looked like it would be River.
Palmeiras had been dealt a blow before kick-off with Luan ruled out through injury and with the late defensive reshuffle, River sensed weakness. Rafael Santos Borré fired over and Jorge Carrascal forced Weverton into a good stop from point-blank range as Gallardo’s side looked certain to break the deadlock.
And yet on a rare foray into the River box it was Palmeiras that struck first thanks in large part to Franco Armani. The River goalkeeper tried to kick clear a low cross into the box, the ball instead fell to Rony and the Palmeiras winger’s shot deflected past Armani into the net.
The away goal was significant but not a mortal blow and River continued on the front foot for the remainder of the first half. Nacho Fernández struck the crossbar from a free-kick and while Weverton was not really called into further action, River remained a threat.
If the first half was a little unfortunate for River, the second was an utter disaster. A minute after the restart, Luiz Adriano turned Robert Rojas with ease on halfway and sprinted clear of the River defence to slot Palmeiras two in front.
River were shell-shocked. Finding it increasingly difficult to find space in the Palmeiras half, River couldn’t fashion any clear chances and a bad night got even worse.
Jorge Carrascal, an undoubted talent but one who has shown before to struggle with his temper, lashed out at the impressive Gabriel Menino. The Colombian saw red and from the resulting free-kick, Matías Viña glanced a header into the bottom corner. Palmeiras led 3-0 in Avellaneda against the ten men of River.
There was no way back for River and Palmeiras may only regret not taking an even greater advantage back home next week.