The fire, passion and spectacle of the Superclásico returns in its latest edition tomorrow as fierce Buenos Aires rivals go toe to toe in a Superliga clash. Paradoxically, though it will not be the biggest match of the week for either of the two teams, who at this point have another, bigger prize in their minds ahead of the encounter.
Both Boca and River will step out onto the Bombonera turf knowing that, while a win would be more than welcome in a match that ever divides the population, the real priority lies elsewhere. The two teams are still dreaming of glory in the Copa Libertadores and will be encouraged by midweek results that means that objective remains a distinct possibility.
River once more had the outstanding Franco Armani to thank after a 0-0 draw away to Independiente in the Libertadores quarter-final first leg that was far more entertaining that that staid scoreline suggests. The goalkeeper, who earlier in the season broke Amadeo Carrizo’s 50-year record for minutes played without conceding, pulled off a simply spectacular stop to deny Emanuel Gigliotti and was otherwise imperious to keep the Avellaneda side at bay and the match goalless.
Armani had performed similar heroics in Avellaneda in the last 16, that time at Racing Club’s expense, and in eight outings so far this season in the league and Libertadores has been beaten on just two occasions. His form has in part compensated for a chronic lack of goals for the Millonarios – just five goals in five Superliga games, four of them last weekend against the hapless San Martín de San Juan – who have had no problem creating chances, but have found converting those opportunities a rather more difficult prospect.
“It gives the team a lot of calm and confidence. [Armani] answers whenever we need him, he was decisive in his actions,” coach Marcelo Gallardo signalled after the game. Boca know full well what the ex-Atlético Nacional shot-stopper is capable, having seen him pull off a host of stops to hand River the Supercopa trophy the last time the two sides met, and will be hoping for the rarest of off-days when he steps into the Bombonera for the first time.
The Xeneize for their part will have no little confidence going into the game. Mauro Zárate’s impeccable finish and a stunning strike from Pablo Pérez saw off the challenge of stubborn Cruzeiro just hours after Independiente and River locked horns on Wednesday, with the 2-0 scoreline fitting reward from a game dominated from start to finish by Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s troops.
They also boast a demon behind the posts in new signing Esteban Andrada, who like Armani has been beaten just twice so far in the Superliga. The ex-Lanús man even bounced back from a horrific clash of heads that left him bleeding profusely from the mouth to keep a clean sheet that puts Boca in the driving seat ahead of the second leg in Belo Horizonte. His absence tomorrow after being diagnosed with a broken jaw will be sorely felt, while giving the much-maligned Agustín Rossi a chance to shine after taking his share of flak from the Boca faithful during his time between the posts.
It is in fact something of a golden year for goalkeepers in the Superliga. Independiente’s Martín Campaña was just as impressive as Armani, if not as spectacular, in keeping River out, while over the road in Avellaneda Racing Club’s nationalised Chile international Gabriel Arias has proved his worth with a string of fine performances to push La Academia top of the pile.
Andrada’s withdrawal aside, Boca boast a wealth of talent in their squad that gives them an edge in this hectic fixture schedule. When a player of Carlos Tevez’s undoubted talent can afford to watch from the bench as his team brush past one of South America’s most accomplished sides, alongside the recovering Fernando Gago, it is clear that the Xeneize have the depth to rotate tired legs tomorrow and simultaneously not miss a beat. Nevertheless, it will come down to the 11 on the pitch at the Bombonera to decide the Superclásico – and do not be surprised if a certain No. 1 once again takes centre stage.