After six months of football drought, Thursday's rains were all the sweeter for falling in a sudden torrent. All five of Argentina's Copa Libertadores participants were back in action in the continental competition, dusting off the cobwebs after the extended, seemingly endless absence forced upon them by the coronavirus pandemic. One can argue and with some justification over whether this was the right time for the game to return to our shores, but even the most determined sceptic could not help but feel at least some relief at seeing Boca Juniors, River Plate and Co. step back onto the field.
It certainly has been a long time. Six months, give or take a week or so, which logically put Argentina's competitors at somewhat of a disadvantage alongside their South American rivals. While state and/or national competitions have been active in Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and other countries for as much as too months prior to this week's Copa restart, Argentina, along with Bolivia and Venezuela, has remained under sporting lockdown while Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc.
The disease's spectre hung over the entire third round of fixtures, most notably in farcical circumstances ahead of Boca's trip to Libertad; but the show did go on and fans, albeit from the safety and comfort of their living rooms, were treated to a feast of football that culminated with a string of gripping fixtures two days ago.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation was that, save some clearly aching legs towards the end, none of the Argentina contingent looked worse the wear for the eternal lay-off compared to their opponents, in theory better prepared and ready for action.
Racing were unlucky to go down 1-0 to Nacional at home after dominating the game, which ultimately hinged on a 15-minute lapse in concentration at the start of the second half from the hosts that saw them give away the decisive penalty – converted by the topical Gonzalo 'Lavandina' (Bleach) Bergessio, a former Académico – and reduced to 10 men with Augusto Solari's red card. La Academia nevertheless could have still taken a point from the encounter had Iván Pillúd's late strike eluded goalkeeper Sergio Rochet, who instead pulled off a fine save to earn the win for the Uruguayans.
Of all the sides in action, on paper at least River appeared to have one of the most daunting tasks. Away to São Paulo, the stage looked set for a long, painful evening when Enzo Pérez put past his own keeper. But the Millonario rallied, levelling through Rafael Borré and briefly taking the lead after half-time before yet another own goal, this time through Fabricio Angeleri, sealed a 2-2 draw that will satisfy last year's Copa finalists.
Over in Florencio Varela Defensa y Justicia picked up their first-ever Libertadores points in style, smashing Ecuador's Delfin 3-0 to finally get on the board in Group G. Things didn't go quite so well for Tigre though, who were soundly defeated 4-1 by Paraguay's Guaraní.
“You shouldn't be playing this game. Infected Bostero mafioso.” That was the charming message Boca received upon arriving in Asunción to take on Libertad, by far the most controversial match of the round. The Paraguayan side's hackles had been raised by the 'miraculous' recovery from coronavirus enjoyed by most of Boca's first team, after more than 20 players had tested positive just a fortnight before kicking off. Coach Miguel Ángel Russo did miss out, deciding not to risk infection by staying back in Buenos Aires, and after threats of legal action and Libertad's (graciously declined) offer to test the Xeneize squad in a private laboratory the game finally took place in a more or less regular fashion, albeit with plenty of fouls and stoppages as both sides looked to dominate this key Group H encounter.
Boca drew first blood six minutes in when Eduardo Salvio turned home a rebound and, despite the best efforts of the antagonised hosts, never looked likely to relinquish their winning position. Salvio struck again to put the result beyond doubt in the second half, sending Russo's charge top of their group at the halfway stage.
It was a victory that proved more straightforward than Boca could possibly have dreamed, particularly a fortnight ago when their training base resembled a medical ward; and capped a strong night indeed for Argentina's Copa hopefuls who made the six-month lay-off look insignificant with a series of excellent performances against their more match-ready rivals.