While football may appear complex at first glance, ultimately the game boils down to a few key essentials, to paraphrase an old gem: twenty-two players kick a ball around for 90 minutes, and then Boca Juniors win on penalties.
The Xeneize are experts at coming through when the chips are down, as they have been for much of the past year. Back in August they prevailed over River Plate in a Copa Argentina shoot-out without mustering a single shot on target – one of three penalty victories in that competition, including the final over Talleres – and last Saturday, Sebastián Battaglia's charges repeated that feat to end Racing Club's hopes of glory.
In the Academia goal Gastón Gómez was a virtual spectator as his side dominated the semi-final, and the first time his net was encroached came when Marcos Rojo converted from the spot. The goalkeeper did manage to keep out one of Boca's efforts, a stunning (or rather fortuitous, depending on your perspective) save with his boot to prevent Eduardo Salvio from winning the tie, but it proved only a stay of execution for Fernando Gago and his men – the best team in the league during the opening phase – as Emiliano Insua blasted wide and Alan Varela rolled home to send Boca into the decider.
“If you watch television from Monday to Friday, Boca are the worst team, they should be in last place fighting relegation,” Club Vice-President Juan Román Riquelme fired to ESPN when asked about his side’s rather subdued recent play. It is true that the Xeneize are not exactly firing on all cylinders, or scoring goals for fun; but neither are they conceding many, boasting the second tightest defence in the Copa de la Liga Profesional after Racing and shutting out their opponents in both play-off ties. That aspect is just as crucial as filling up the opposition net and makes them formidable rivals, while when they do need an extra push the talent is there to provide it – as Darío Benedetto showed in the subsequent Copa Libertadores clash with Corinthians on Tuesday, when he hit a sublime equaliser to keep them in the hunt for a spot in the knockouts.
Nevertheless, it is with some trepidation that they will line up for the final in Córdoba's Estadio Mario Kempes. On the other side will be Tigre, Boca's vanquishers in the 2019 Copa Superliga and, as mentioned last week, something of an expert in this format. Diego Martínez's men squeezed past Argentinos Juniors in their own penalty heroics to maintain their 100 per cent record of final appearances in Copas – relegated after that Boca win, the Matador missed the 2020 Copa Diego Armando Maradona and 2021 Copa Liga Profesional during their second-tier exile – and showed enough in the group stages and in beating River to suggest they will be no pushovers in the final, playing Boca at their own, cautious, counter-attacking game. Sparkling football may not be the order of the day on Sunday, but an enthralling, tense match is guaranteed.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the weekend's action could be found not on the pitch, but in the stands. Both semi-finals on neutral ground boasted fans from each team adding their own noise and colour, and despite the natural anxiety over the unfamiliar caused by almost a decade of restrictions the experiment proved a rousing success – particularly in Boca's victory over Racing, as supporters of two of Argentina's biggest clubs (and far from best friends) came together in their tens of thousands without ripping up Lanús' home ground or causing chaos in the surrounding streets.
It has long been the contention of this column that apathy, not legitimate security concerns, is behind the illogical continued ban on away fans, both from the clubs involved and the politicians and security forces charged with keeping the game in safe working order. The latest talk over bringing back visitors fizzled out into nothing earlier this year, but the Copa de la Liga Profesional showed that it can be done, and indeed, must, to restore some of the magic that has been lost to Argentine football over the inexplicably long duration of the suspension.