By the time the Copa Libertadores finally bids farewell to 2020 on the eve of Christmas Eve, there will be at least one Argentine team among South America's four top sides. In all likelihood that number will double by the time the last quarter-final comes to a conclusion, after River Plate took a big step towards the semis on Thursday with a 2-0 victory over Nacional.
The clash might have taken place at Independiente's Libertadores de América home, due to the ongoing renovations to the Monumental, but there was a sombre mood around Avellaneda as Millonario coach Marcelo Gallardo met with his former employers for the first time. Alejandro Sabella, the ex-Estudiantes and Argentina boss who began his professional career in Núñez, passed away two days earlier after a long battle with heart problems, and Gallardo had glowing words for the man who handed him his debut in the River reserves as Daniel Passarella's assistant, telling reporters “he was a wise, noble man.”
The game itself threatened to be an overwhelmingly frustrating affair for River, who in the first half banged their heads against a resolute Nacional wall while squandering the few real chances that came their way. Rafael Borré was a particular culprit, hitting his penalty straight at Sergio Rochet, while Matías Suárez was unlucky to see his sublime strike overturned with help from VAR.
Nacional retreated further into their shell after half time, but the pressure from the home side finally told with a second penalty decision in their favour. Gonzalo Montiel stepped up this time and made no mistake, while Bruno Zuculini then came off the bench to head home deep into injury time and give River a lead that, while far from unassailable, should provide enough cushion to see them safely through next week's return match in Montevideo.
Over at the Bombonera, meanwhile, one could not help but feel that Boca's progression to the quarters – where they will face Racing Club in an all-Argentine tie that begins next week – owed at least in part to divine intervention.
The Xeneize's last-16 tie against Internacional had been delayed by a week due to the news that Diego Maradona had died, and they went into Wednesday's decider 1-0 to the good after Carlos Tevez had struck late in Porto Alegre. Miguel Ángel Russo's men, though, found it hard going against an Inter side far more direct and, it seemed, motivated than in the previous clash and fell behind minutes after the halt-time restart when Frank Fabra put past his own keeper to cap a defensive horror show for the home team.
Both sides were wayward in their finishing after the Brazilians' equaliser, leading to a penalty shoot-out that left any observing fans on the verge of nervous breakdown. It did not take long for Maradona to flex his spiritual muscles, willing Tevez's opening spot-kick agonisingly over the line when it appeared that Inter keeper Marcelo Lomba had done just enough to keep a rather tame effort out.
Nevertheless, the initiative swung Inter's way when Edwin Cardona fired an equally subdued attempt into his arms, but Rodrigo Lindoso cancelled out the Colombian's mishap by firing his penalty high into the Bombonera rafters and, in sudden-death, teenage substitute Peglow pulled off an almost exact replica to send the ecstatic, and more than a little relieved, Xeneize into the next round.
Racing will have been watching on with interest, and the clash between two of Argentina's big five will keep us all occupied until right up to the very beginning of the festive period.