And then there were two.
Boca Juniors and Racing Club have been left to fly the flag for Argentina in the 2023 Copa Libertadores after narrow defeat and heart-break for Argentinos Juniors and River Plate, who both exited in agonising circumstances in the last-16 phase. And as fate would have it, the Grandes now face off, in a tie which will do much to define the rest of the season for both hopefuls.
Of all the eight teams to book their place in the quarter-finals, Racing sprang perhaps the biggest surprise. Not so much by reaching the stage, but in the manner by which they finally booked their ticket against all the odds. Having been handed a theoretically soft opening clash against Colombia's Atlético Nacional, La Academia proceeded to squander any possible advantage on paper with a kamikaze defensive performance in Medellín which handed the initiative to their rivals.
Having fought back to within a goal in the dying minutes only to eventually go down 4-2, Fernando Gago's men needed a miracle in the return match, or at the very least a much-improved display in front of their own fans. Fortunately for the capacity crowd squeezed into El Cilindro, that is exactly what they delivered. Roger Martínez and Agustín Ojeda tied up the encounter before an own goal from the visitors sealed victory for Racing, who went through with a flourish and no little relief. They will know, however, that Boca will not be nearly as accommodating away from home should Wednesday's opening match in La Bombonera go their way, and simply cannot afford another mental lapse like that which put their continued Libertadores participation in severe jeopardy before roaring back into contention.
Their next opponents also took a roundabout, thrilling (some, especially on the Xeneize side, would say unnecessarily so) route to the last eight. After grinding out a 0-0 draw against Nacional in the Montevideo opener Boca were overwhelming favourites to finish the job in front of their own fans, but were pegged back twice after taking the lead in the Bombonera and had to go to a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out to finish the job.
But where arch-rivals River had faltered the previous day, Boca's impeccable penalty pedigree came through. It helps, of course, to count on someone like Sergio Romero between the posts. The former Argentina number may not be getting any younger but when it comes to stopping spot-kicks he is still one of the best around, and he proved as much by saving two of Nacional's four efforts to send the Xeneize through to face 'Chiquito's' boyhood club. He has now saved six out of the 11 penalties faced in Boca colours, and claims to have a secret weapon at his disposal: “A shoot-out in front of [Boca barra brava] La 12 always helps, it gives you an extra wing to fly further.”
Boca hold the advantage from the two teams' last meeting in the Copa, coming back from behind to win in an eerily empty Bombonera deep in the midst of the Covid-ravaged 2020 season. This time round, it will have all the ingredients of a proper cup derby, with both stadiums packed to burst and desperate for glory. Can the Xeneize hold on for the semis and keep their dream of that elusive seventh Libertadores alive? Or will Racing continue their renaissance after a muted start to the year and keep Gago on course for a shot at the title, potentially their first in almost 60 years?
The two games will be fascinating viewing, the tensest of duels between the last Argentines standing in this Copa who have both proved they are in no mood to give up without a fight.