The match that is the subject of dreams – and nightmares – in the streets of Buenos Aires is upon us. For the next month every other issue and conversation will pale into insignificance compared to the importance of two football matches to be played at opposing ends of the Argentine capital over the course of November.
Boca Juniors and River Plate are set to clash in the final of the Copa Libertadores – and South American football may never be the same again.
The very existence of this match is nothing short of a miracle. While Boca were firm favourites to overcome Palmeiras in São Paulo and battle through to a record 11th final, River’s cause appeared hopeless as late as eighty minutes into the second leg against Grêmio. Trailing 1-0 from the opening match, Marcelo Gallardo’s men dominated possession but found no way past the Porto Alegre side, who to compound matters doubled their lead on Tuesday when a mishit corner fell kindly to young Leonardo Gomes, whose volley flew past Franco Armani and into the net with a sickening swish.
River were down and out. But in a twist of fate to rank alongside the competition’s greatest comebacks, Gallardo and his charges fought back from the edge of oblivion. Rafael Santos Borré, all 174 centimetres of him, somehow stole in between Grêmio’s towering centre-backs to score with an unlikely header, giving the Millonarios a lifeline with just 10 minutes plus injury time left on the clock.
With the clock now showing 88 minutes Ignacio Scocco’s looping shot from the edge of the area glanced off the hand of Bressan and out for a corner.
Time was running out; River could have been forgiven for rushing over and playing the set-piece quickly in order to keep the pressure on.
But they waited. Uruguayan referee André Cunha secondguessed his original judgement and sent the play to his Video Assistant Referee, who after what seemed an endless wait judged that Bressan had deliberately handled.
Cunha pointed to the spot and for good measure sent off Grêmio’s offender, who proceeded to attempt to rip the official’s head off before finally being ushered down the tunnel.
Pity Martínez – that guy is crazy – blasted home the penalty in style, and River were going to the Copa final in the most unlikely of circumstances. Having ended 2017’s semi final against Lanús cursing the existence of VAR, the Millonarios were now praising it to the hills.
There was no lack of controversy, in the finest Libertadores tradition. Gallardo risks a hefty punishment for defying his touchline ban in Porto Alegre, even going to the lengths of sneaking into his team’s dressing-room flimsily disguised with a hat and heavy coat.
“I dared to go down and talk to the players because I thought they needed it and so did I,” the coach, stubbornly unrepentant in his job, said after the match. “I may have broken a rule, but it was what I had to do. I don’t care about being in the finals.”
Grêmio subsequently embarked on a quixotic mission to see the result overturned on the grounds that Gallardo broke the rules, while on a more prosaic note there was more than a hint of hand in Borré’s opener – not that anyone connected to River will care.
THE PLANETS ALIGN
Compared to those scenes in Porto Alegre, Boca’s passage to the final was positively straightforward, if rather nerve-wracking at one point.
Ramón Ábila made it 3-0 overall early on in the glorious surroundings of Palmeiras’ gorgeous Allianz Parque home, leaving the Brazilian needing a surely impossible four goals to prevail.
They kept fighting nevertheless, hitting through Luan and Gustavo Gómez to make Boca sweat, before Darío Benedetto repeated his Bombonera heroics with the coolest, crispest of finishes to put the game finally out of reach.
The planets, then, have aligned. For the first time in history Boca and River will go head-to-head on the biggest stage imaginable.
For the winner, bragging rights in this most vicious of rivalries until the end of time. For the loser, not even permanent voluntary exile in Tierra del Fuego will spare them from the subsequent jibes.
This is much more than just a football match: for all those involved, and the millions of fans resigned to a month of restless sleep and shredded nerves, this is life or death.