Feature Photo: Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images
River Plate won the Final of the Two Worlds. The most awaited, tormented, and postponed match in recent football history ended in the hands of Los Millonarios as they topped Boca Juniors 3-1 at Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid to capture the Copa Libertadores 2018.
Marcelo Gallardo’s one-touch football prevailed over the Xeneize side after 120 minutes of intense South American futebol, and despite Darìo Benedetto’s initial goal. Cramps and the expulsion of Wìlmar Barrios proved fatal for Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s troops, whose lead was cancelled by former Genoa striker Lucas Pratto. Boca eventually run out of breath during extra time and succumbed to a goal by Juan Fernando Quintero – 17 caps with Pescara in the Italian Serie A in 2012-13.
With Boca keeper Esteban Andrada spending the last five minutes playing as an additional field man, Gonzalo Martìnez made it three for River Plate in the 122nd minute, firing the ball in the untended goal to deliver La Banda their fourth Copa Libertadores, and the right to likely face Real Madrid in the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup.
As River captain Leonardo Ponzio lifted the trophy for the second time in four years, curtains finally came down on a four-week long drama which culminated with the relocation of the second leg of this historical Superclasico to the Spanish capital.
The battle for supremacy over Buenos Aires and the whole of South America was supposed to be the last Libertadores Final to be contended over two games. It rather ended up being de facto the first single-leg one, as the spectacular 2-2 draw from November 11 at La Bombonera was cancelled by the tumultuous events preceding the rematch scheduled two weeks later at Estadio Monumental – the game that never happened.
A few hours away of the match, River fans had attacked the Boca Juniors bus with tear gas and stones, causing minor injuries to some of the yellow-and-blue players. The ensuing urban guerrilla scenes and clashes between rival fan groups had prompted the CONMEBOL to put the game on hold, before ruling that it could simply not take place in Buenos Aires.
One would think that the Xeneizes had morally won their right to conquer the Libertadores as victims of the shameful attack, if only their president Daniel Angelici wouldn’t start demanding the title to be just awarded to his side without playing the retour match. With futebol showing its darkest face, and the CONMEBOL scrambling to find a place to host the by-now-tainted Match of the Century, Madrid emerged as the location deemed to save the face of Argentinian football.
Almost one month after the first leg game, the consolation prize for all football fans was thus that Copa Libertadores 2018 was still decided on the pitch, where fortune and fate smiled on Los Millionarios.
La Gran Final at Santiago Bernabeu ultimately lived up to expectations, offering a high-paced and intense football show embellished by some true gems of goals. But it took a while to see some action, as the two teams rather appeared paralyzed with tension, and more prone to beating each other in view of a rivalry that the pre-match drama could only fuel more.
River’s seasoned defender Jonatan Maidana risked a tragicomic own goal when deflecting a Boca cross from the left flank in the 8th minute. On the other side, Esteban Andrada attempted to pay back with a suicidal pass that La Banda intercepted and risked turning into their lead.
Still, it was the yellow-and-blue side to put their heads ahead, when El Pipa Darìo Benedetto finalized a Counterattack 101 action, receiving a perfectly-timed filtering pass by midfielder Nahitan Nàndez, and slaloming between River defenders to put the ball past goalie Franco Armani.
Marcelo Gallardo’s troops saw their hopes frustrated further when Uruguayan referee Andrés Cunha closed one eye – maybe both – to Andrada crashing into Lucas Pratto in the box. But the disallowed penalty did not discourage the former Genoa forward, who took the matter into his own hands in the 68th minute, and acted as offensive terminal of a beautiful one-touch combination with Ignacìo Fernandez and Exequiel Palacios to level for River Plate.
Coach Schelotto reshuffled his cards and resorted to veteran Fernando Gago in place of captain Pablo Perez. Boca’s number 8 didn’t like it at all, and threw his captain bend away in anger as he left the pitch. Gago, on the other hand, failed to make the impact his coach expected, and couldn’t even make it to the end of the game due to cramps.
Wilmar Barrios scored a second yellow card during stoppage time, forcing the Xeneizes to play the full extra time with one man less. With Nandez also ruled out by cramps, Boca Juniors progressively left control of the pitch to River. Juan Fernando Quintero scared Andrada twice with two long-distance shots that missed by far – but eventually proved that he was only adjusting his aim.
In the 109th minute, the former Pescara midfielder produced a left-foot screamer that hit the crossbar, and bounced into the net to move the score in La Banda’s favor. Not even the late entrance of Boca’s talisman Carlos Tevez could change the situation at that point.
River wasted a counterattack with four men, and risked seeing their lead cancelled when Leonardo Jara gathered his last strengths and hit the post with a tricky right-foot shot. But with Boca desperately throwing their remaining nine men – goalkeeper included – all forward, the third goal for the white-and-reds could only be a matter of minutes.
Gonzalo Martìnez eventually made it to the scorecard, and to history, certifying River Plate’s 3-1 just seconds before Cunha blew the final whistle, triggering an unprecedented celebration on the Millonarios’ side. River clinched the throne of South America, completing their climb back from the shame of an historical relegation to Nacional B in 2011.
With Real Madrid going through one of their worst seasons in the last years, the party for Marcelo Gallardo’s squad might have just started as they head to the United Arab Emirates to compete in the FIFA Club World Cup.
December 9, 2018 – Copa Libertadores 2018 Final
RIVER PLATE-BOCA JUNIORS 3-1 (after extra time)
SCORERS: 44′ Benedetto (B), 68′ Pratto (R), 109′ Quintero (R), 122′ Martinez (R)
|RIVER PLATE (4-3-2-1): Armani; Montiel (74′ Mayada), Maidana, Pinola, Casco; E. Perez, Ponzio (58′ Quintero), I. Fernandez (111′ Zuculini); Palacios (97′ Alvarez), P. Martinez; Pratto (Lux, Mora, Quarta) Coach: Gallardo|
|BOCA JUNIORS (4-4-2): Andrada; Buffarini (111′ Tevez), Izquierdoz, Magallan, Olaza; Nandez, Barrios, Perez (89′ Gago), Villa (96′ Jara); Pavon, Benedetto (62′ Abila) (Rossi, Goltz, Zarate) Coach: Schelotto|
REFEREE: Cunha (Uruguay)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Ponzio, Fernandez, Maidana (R), Perez, Tevez (B); Red Card: Barrios (B); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 3′, 1st Extra Half 1′, 2nd Extra Half 2′