“I think it would be better for one of the finalists to be Brazilian. Whoever. That way we will not have that final which will have us Boca and River fans in bed for three weeks. Do you know what it is like to go three weeks without sleeping. It is crazy, eh, too much.”
The prospect of Boca Juniors and River Plate disputing the Copa Libertadores has even President Mauricio Macri tossing and turning on his pillow. But after this week’s semi-final first leg, the chances of a game that would indeed bring Argentina to a standstill while its two biggest teams go head-to-head on the most important stage imaginable now looks, if not impossible, at the very least a little more improbable than just seven days ago.
Both River and Boca hosted Brazilian opposition in Buenos Aires, two huge sporting clashes that fought for news space amongst the bitter battle to pass the Budget through the Lower House of Congress. And while Macri may not have been too happy over the battering his party took on the political stage, before finally passing the much-criticised financial bill in the early hours of Thursday morning, the former Boca president and avid football fan saw his hopes partially fulfilled with contrasting fortunes for Argentina’s Libertadores participants.
So strong in previous Copa ties against domestic rivals Racing and Independiente, particularly at home, River came up against a sky-blue brick wall on Wednesday in the shape of trophy holders Grêmio.
The Millonario tried everything to break through, even playing mercurial Colombian Juan Fernando Quintero from the start in the hope that he would have the key to goal. But it was not enough. Belying the old Brazilian footballing stereotype that style must always come first, Grêmio were all substance, presenting an impenetrable barrier in front of goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe while waiting for the gaps to appear.
Frustrated and starved of decent opportunities, River were forced to chase shadows. Then, just as fans from both sides were resigning themselves to a scoreless draw that would leave the tie wide open for the return match in Porto Alegre, a body blow for the hosts: midfielder Michel swooped to score a fine header, with River goalkeeper Franco Armani uncharacteristically exposed in the net and left screaming abuse at his defenders.
The semi-final is far from over but on the evidence of the opening match River will need a minor miracle to make an impact on Grohe’s net and get the minimum of one goal they require to keep their hopes alive.
When Boca and Palmeiras walked out onto the Bombonera pitch exactly 24 hours later it appeared the visiting team from São Paulo had studied their compatriots’ success. The Xeneize were gifted control of possession and invited to do something with it, a challenge that for no less than 83 minutes looked wholly beyond them.
Bereft of creative inspiration, wave after wave of Boca attacks were repelled with ease, the only intrusion on the Palmeiras net coming through a handful of longrange effort that were comfortably held by Weverton, while at the other end the lively Dudú made life difficult for the home defence that nevertheless stood up to the test.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. Darío Benedetto, Boca’s former goal machine, had looked a forlorn figure in his previous appearances since recovering from a serious knee injury that ended his chances of going to the World Cup and kept the 28 year-old inactive for almost a year.
On Wednesday, however, Benedetto was back to his best. He needed just six minutes after coming off the bench to head past Weverton and give Boca a priceless lead, finally finding a way through from a corner. He was only getting warmed up.
With the Bombonera now baying for blood the striker pulled off a marvellous turn from a solitary start, lined himself up and smashed a wicked shot past Palmeiras’ shotstopper, who could only dive in despair as almost singlehanded Benedetto put the Xeneize 2-0 up and with one foot in the final.
There is still plenty more football to come. Both of next week’s second legs could yet spring a surprise, with River hopeful of pulling their tie back from the brink while Boca must travel to São Paulo in a state of supreme vigilance against a still-dangerous Palmeiras side.
As it stands that much-anticipated – and much-feared – Superclásico final is still a distinct possibility. If River can pull off the improbable, Macri and millions of other fans will have to resign themselves to more than a few sleepless nights ahead of a clash that will be a simultaneous dream and nightmare for all involved.