It is the kind of scenario which dreams are made of – or, for many, a living nightmare. The prospect of Boca Juniors and River Plate meeting in a second Superclásico Copa Libertadores final, on no less fitting a stage than in Rio de Janeiro's hallowed Estadio Maracanã, has been alive since the start of the delayed 2020 competition, and became a tangible reality when both clubs advanced to the semi-final stage back in December. But after the past week's events, the chances of such a clash now look all too remote.
There was at least one reminder of the chaotic scenes which accompanied the 2018 final. Following a drab 0-0 draw Santos alleged that on the way to the Bombonera, their team coach was pelted with rocks by home fans which left an unsightly crack in the vehicle's windshield. Those accusations were quickly refuted, however, by 'El Gringo', who has plenty of experience in such situations.
The driver, the same man who fainted at the wheel of the Boca bus two years ago after rolling straight into a fan ambush outside the Monumental, revealed that this time there was a more innocent explanation for the damage: a low-hanging tree branch he had failed to avoid on his approach to the Boca ground. “They shouldn't lie. I don't know why they are causing suspicion for no reason, they will make people crazy in Brazil,” he told Olé. “It was a branch!”
A heated atmosphere is nevertheless almost guaranteed for next week's second leg. Santos were left fuming over referee Roberto Tobar and the VAR officials' refusal to award a penalty for Carlos Izquierdoz's shove in the area, one of the few moments of drama in an otherwise rather uneventful 0-0 draw. The Brazilian club even went as far as to send an official letter of protest to CONMEBOL registering their displeasure, ensuring once more that it is the match officials' conduct that dominates the headlines.
On the pitch neither side really managed to move out of third gear, unwilling to take risks with another 90 minutes still outstanding before the tie is decided. As a result the last-four clash remains wide open, with plenty of opportunity for more controversy before the final whistle blows in the return match this Wednesday.
Boca, then, retain their hopes of advancing to the Maracaná, although they will have to up their efforts significantly. For their arch-rivals, though, only a near-miracle will secure passage to Rio.
Winners in 2018 and beaten finalists last year, River came out in typically offensive, swashbuckling fashion against Palmeiras on Tuesday, many people's favourites to win the tournament. But the Millonario paid the price first for some absent-minded goalkeeping from the usually reliable Franco Armani and then for a general loss of focus and discipline as the Brazilians ran out 3-0 winners in Independiente's Libertadores de América home.
Their woes were compounded by an absurd moment of madness from Jorge Carrascal, the 'Colombian Neymar' who proved at least he could match his namesake for ill-judged petulance after earning a red card for lashing out at Gabriel Menino in full sight of the referee.
Coach Marcelo Gallardo signalled his intention to “try the epic” in the return leg in São Paulo on Wednesday, but admitted: “We have to digest this blow, which was totally unexpected. We will have to recover mentally to approach the second leg with the intensity we always show and go looking for the win. But if we commit defensive mistakes or mistakes as a team, we could suffer...”
While one would be foolish to rule out River completely after so many memorable Libertadores performances over the years, the odds therefore are against a repeat of the 2018 final occurring again on January 30.
Perhaps, all things considered, that would be for the best. Such a showpiece involving the two giants against a backdrop of the empty Maracaná, silent and desolate, would be a surreal, even depressing experience given the passion and fury which accompanies both teams from the stands in every regular Superclásico – last Saturday's Copa Maradona clash, filled with goals and talking points, appeared to lack that vital ingredient which makes the fixture so special.
And on top of everything, what most people yearn for is a 2021 with as little incident as possible – a wish incompatible with yet another derby final dominating the headlines.