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SPORTS | 07-07-2023 06:53

A look at Argentina’s Copa Libertadores last-16 competitors

Yes, if Boca and River both win all three of their next ties they will meet in the final; and yes, it would be in the Maracaná, but there are plenty of other hopefuls still in the competition – not least Argentinos and Racing.

Six Argentine teams began 2023 dreaming of finishing the year as Copa Libertadores champions. Now, as we enter the last-16 stage, four still remain, having battled through a punishing group stage against South America's football elite.

Argentinos Juniors, Boca Juniors, Racing Club and River Plate were all in the draw for Wednesday's knockout draw, which set up no end of attractive clashes. Predictably enough, though, the eyes of most of Argentina's mainstream sporting media were firmly fixed on one possible permutation. So let us get that out of the way first.

Yes, if Boca and River both win all three of their next ties they will meet each other in the final; and yes, that final would be in no less prestigious a venue than Río de Janeiro's Estadio Maracaná, the spiritual home of Brazilian football. But there are of course 14 other hopefuls aside from the all-enveloping Superclásico duo, all of whom are desperate to leave their own mark on the competition. So, that formality out of the way, how do those survivors stack up against each other?

Racing have been a walking paradox so far in 2023. Somehow setting aside atrocious league form, an imbalanced, cobbled-together squad and a horrendous run of injury luck, Fernando Gago's men have made the Libertadores look easy. Four wins, a draw and just one solitary, narrow defeat to Flamengo sent Racing through at the top of Group A ahead of the defending champions, with only Palmeiras and Olimpia surpassing their impressive haul of 13 points.

Not that La Academia can afford to rest on their laurels. The imminent exit of Matías Rojas to Corinthians and his knack for scoring outrageous goals out of nothing will hurt an already flimsy attacking line, and Fernando Gago must hope that absence is compensated for in the transfer market before taking on Colombian giants Atlético Nacional at the start of August. Get through that, and Boca might just be waiting in a repeat of the 2020 quarter-final won from behind by the Xeneize.

The six-time Libertadores champions themselves have steadily improved after a catastrophic start to the year which accounted for coach Hugo Ibarra, and while they remain rather inconsistent both in the Liga and Copa Jorge Almirón's charges appear to be on the verge of putting it all together.

Like their potential last-eight rivals, though, Boca will be desperate to fix their attacking woes this winter prior to facing Nacional in Montevideo. Sebastián Villa's departure following a domestic violence conviction and an injury suffered by the promising Luca Langoni has left the club short of firepower, and a top striker will be their absolute priority for the latter stages. But a talented young core centred around Alan Varela, Cristian Medina and Valentín Barco and their impeccable Libertadores pedigree means nobody will be taking Boca lightly.

For their rivals, meanwhile, who take on Internacional in a blockbuster clash, the opposite end of the pitch is more of a concern. None of the other 15 qualifiers conceded as many goals as River's 11 in the group stage and, while with Lucas Beltrán firing on all cylinders the Millonario have no problem finding the net, keeping out quality opponents has proven much more difficult. Uruguay's U-20 World Cup champion Santiago Boselli has already been earmarked as a possible defensive reinforcement and more names are bound to come up to shore up a backline that at times has creaked alarmingly in front of the veteran Franco Armani.

That just leaves Argentinos, who pulled off perhaps the biggest shock of the tournament so far in pushing out mighty Corinthians to qualify for the next round, famous victory in São Paulo included. The team coached by Gabriel Milito is short on star power but hard-working, dynamic and strong across the pitch, and now face another Brazilian titan in the shape of Fluminense. But they may just have an ace up their sleeve. Milito has reached out to Barcelona and Spain legend Andrés Iniesta, who has just wrapped up four successful years in Japan with Vissel Kobe. “Of course we would love to have him, because I know him and know what he's like as a person, everyone knows what he is as a player,” Milito said of his former Barça team-mate. Bringing Iniesta to La Paternal might be a tough sell but it would be an incredible coup for the Bicho, adding yet another dimension to this thrilling Libertadores campaign.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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