Boca Juniors' Carlos Tevez gamble fails to pay off
Boca Juniors had been waiting 10 months to gain revenge over bitter rivals River Plate for last year's final of the Copa Libertadores. And they had been waiting three weeks to gain revenge for the 2-0 first leg defeat in this year's semifinal.
They then had to wait an extra 15 minutes while the ticker tape was removed from their home pitch. Twice the countdown to the kick off started and twice it was halted while the playing surface was cleaned. Not that paper on the pitch would prove too much of an obstacle to Boca. They had their minds set on a more direct route.
There was a simple question dominating this Copa second leg; if Boca were to haul themselves back into the tie, where would the goals come from?
Coach Gustavo Alfaro gambled with the selection from the start of the veteran Carlos Tevez -- perhaps bowing more to pressure from the crowd, who idolize Tevez, then in any real hope that the 35-year-old would tip the balance. It meant that there was no place in the starting line up for Mauro Zarate, Boca's top scorer in this year's competition, and no place for Emanuel Reynoso, whose left foot may have proved an interesting weapon. True, there were moments when Tevez combined well with his teammates. But, never blessed with extreme pace, he has now slowed down to the extent that all of his best work happens a long way from goal.
That is not to say that Boca never posed any threat. Alfaro is known as a small team coach, and his teams are unlikely to be admired by the purists. There was little pretty about Boca. But he had called for intelligence, passion, patience and determination, and his players answered the call. Boca sought to stay compact, using Esteban Andrada as a sweeper keeper, and press River with intensity. This they did. Defending champions River Plate were seldom able to hit their fluid stride -- and were frequently forced to defend set pieces fired into their penalty area.
This proved to be Boca's main weapon. It was not pretty, but it looked like it might be effective. Their frenzied support inspired the players and surely helped them to win a stream of free kicks down the right flank. Curled into the box by Alexis MacAllister, they caused a succession of problems to the River defence. Boca attacked the ball in numbers -- with centre-forward Ramon Abila, centre-backs Lisandro Lopez and Carlos Izquierdoz, left-back Emanuel Mas and midfielder Augustin Almendra all making their presence felt. After one such free kick, the ball ran for Eduardo Salvio to shoot home left footed, only for the goal to be disallowed for a hand ball by Mas.
On the hour mark Zarate was introduced, and the giant Venezuelan youngster Jan Hurtado came on for Abila. Zarate made a quick impact wide on the left, and though the clock was running down, another surge of belief pulsed through the crowd -- especially when River substitute Lucas Pratto wasted a chance to wrap things up on the counter-attack.
With 10 minutes of normal time to go, another of those free kicks paid off. MacAllister crossed to the far post, Lopez won the header and as Zarate looked for the flick, Hurtado tuned the ball over the line.
Alfaro urged his men forward. Substitute winger Sebastian Villa threatened to crash through, but was forced on to this weaker left foot and his tame shot was saved. Lopez met another free kick with a towering header but Armani made the save.
And time ran out.
Boca had won the game 1-0 but lost the tie. They had inflicted River's first defeat of the campaign, but this was no revenge. Over the two legs the best side won, and the team with the richer attacking repertoire goes through to the final.
Last year River and Boca dueled in the Santiago Bernabeu. Now it is River Plate who go on to Santiago of Chile, where on Nov. 23 they will meet Wednesday's winner of the all Brazilian semi between Flamengo and Gremio.