Friday, December 1, 2023

SPORTS | 01-11-2023 23:36

Boca Juniors head to Brazil seeking Copa Libertadores glory

Argentina’s plan for world domination returns to the Estádio do Maracanã, where Boca Juniors are preparing for a Copa Libertadores final showdown against Fluminense.

Regular readers of this space will be well aware of its contention that Argentina has come to rule over the football world. But if anyone still needed convincing of this benevolent tyranny, they need only have taken a glance at events in Paris on Monday.

On no less auspicious a day than the birthday of the late, great Diego Maradona, his spiritual and sporting heir was making yet more history. Lionel Messi surpassed his own (probably unbreakable) record by lifting his eighth Ballon d'Or title and dedicated his triumph to the 1986 World Cup winner and national idol, capping the most glorious 12 months even in his illustrious career which began with that unforgettable victory in Qatar.

Now, the plan for world domination moves back to the Estádio do Maracanã, site of the 2021 Copa América win which set Messi and his team-mates on the road to immortality.

Admittedly, Boca Juniors have not exactly been setting the world on fire in the vein of the rampant Scaloneta. Their recent form – and, in all honesty, most of their 2023 – reads more like a team wallowing in mid-table mediocrity: of their last 19 games, just three have ended in a Xeneize win after 90 minutes. And yet Jorge Almirón's men are now on the verge of something truly special. On Saturday Boca take on Fluminense in the Rio side's own backyard for the chance to clinch their seventh Copa Libertadores, a crown which would tie the long-standing record held by Independiente. And if they do manage it, those recent struggles will not matter a jot.

For while, Boca have struggled to look their best on the pitch, in one very specific part of it they have been formidable: the 12 paces that separate the penalty spot from the goal. Nacional, Racing Club and Palmeiras all fell via shoot-outs on the way to Saturday's final, with Sergio Romero pulling off save after magnificent save to emulate his heroics back in 2014 with Argentina. The ex-Albiceleste number one and veteran of two World Cups had to wait for his chance to shine with his club, after injuries left him inactive for the best part of five months following his free transfer from Manchester United last year; but he has more than made up for lost time and become a firm favourite of the Bombonera faithful.

“When things go your way and the supporters repay your work on the pitch with an ovation, a chant or applause when you save a shot, it's a unique moment,” 'Chiquito' told the CONMEBOL website in the days leading up to the final. “You stop to think about it and it made it all worth it.”

Saturday's showdown certainly has all the ingredients to become a Libertadores classic. Two of the biggest teams in Brazil and Argentina going head to head, with tens of thousands expected to descend on the Maracanã from the latter to cheer on their team – including one energetic fan who decided to cycle the more than 3,000 kilometres that separate Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. Squads littered with ability on both sides, from Boca wonderkid Valentín Barco and the supremely talented Edinson Cavani to impossibly elegant Fluminense playmaker Ganso and Germán Cano, looking to add to his incredible haul of 12 goals so far in the Copa. Not to mention an epic goalkeeper battle: opposite Romero is the evergreen Fábio, who at 43 is still going strong after more than two decades among Brazilian football's elite shot-stoppers.

Boca may well start as slight underdogs against a rival enjoying home advantage and which has been in imperious form throughout this knockout stage. That is exactly how they would like it. No team is more dangerous to write off than the Xeneize when glory is within reach and in spite of their current uninspiring run they have the spirit and the talent to click just when it matters most. At the very least, Fluminense will feel the pressure as the minutes run by: surely, the last thing they want is the prospect of staring down the invincible Romero should yet another shoot-out beckon.  ​

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards


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