Any good cup competition needs a handful of unforgettable matches to help get it off the ground and the audience abuzz. An upset or two never hurts, either. The past week saw plenty of action in the putative Copa Superliga as the much-questioned tournament burst into life ahead of its semi-final stages.
An afterthought from the Superliga organisers brought to life in order to cover a gaping hole in the football calendar caused by a division that is still unwieldy with 26 participants, the Copa Superliga brings together those top-flight teams in a series of clashes.
The ultimate prize on offer – aside from the usual bragging rights – is a place in the Copas Libertadores and Sudamericana for any team who failed to secure their spot in the regular season, meaning those sides who already have their tickets for 2020 could be forgiven for showing less than full motivation.
Nothing helps a team focus like the prospect of an embarrassing reverse, however, and it was for that reason that high-fliers Racing Club and River Plate suddenly kicked back into gear in the vain hope of avoiding elimination against Tigre and Atlético Tucumán respectively.
The two grandes, who finished first and fourth respectively in the Superliga, suffered timid defeats on the road in their first legs.
Eduardo Coudet’s champions offered an insipid display in going down 2-0 to the relegated Matador, galvanised under the direction of permatanned, mullet-sporting veteran coach Néstor Gorosito and with Walter Montillo pulling all the strings at the age of 35. In the return match in Avellaneda, Racing showed more of the form that saw them crowned champions, cancelling out the lead with the help of another golden oldie, Lisandro Lopez. But a spate of injuries – all six substitutions were forced – gave the clash another dimension and in the final minute an unfortunate mistake from debutant Nicolás Muscio let Matías Pérez Acúña in to hit a rasping shot past Gabriel Arias and send Tigre to the last four.
River, meanwhile, came out all guns blazing in the Monumental after being shocked 3-0 on the road. Early goals from Lucas Pratto and Ignacio Fernández cut deep into Atlético’s seemingly impregnable lead, although Javier Toledo put the Tucumán side back on top by converting minutes into the second half. Still the Millonario did not give up and, amid a hail of chances – “We talked to [Atlético goalkeeper Christian] Lucchetti and he said, ‘Boys, please stop attacking’,” River’s Matías Suárez revealed after the game – further goals from Suárez himself and Pratto put the hosts within an inch of a famous comeback.
It was not quite sufficient, however, and having seen River pip them to a Libertadores place this season Atlético’s hopes of making the competition again remain alive thanks to victory on away goals after a thrilling 4-4 aggregate draw; their first leg with Tigre kicks off today in Victoria at 5.45pm.
On the other side of the draw, meanwhile, the goals may not have flowed quite as freely but that took nothing away from the drama.
Argentinos and Gimnasia, two teams who found life tough in the Superliga this season, have found a new lease of life in the Copa. After sharing a 0-0 draw in the first leg in La Paternal it was Argentinos Juniors, 2018-2019’s bottom team, who took the initiative, going ahead on Thursday via Alexis MacAllister. Their place in the last four was sealed following an equaliser from Santiago Silva when Jonathan Sandoval headed home a corner, adding the latest scalp for the Bicho following eliminations of grande duo Independiente and San Lorenzo.
The last of the four quarterfinal clashes saw Mauro Zárate take the spotlight. The Boca Juniors forward had committed a footballing cardinal sin in walking out on Vélez Sarsfield last winter and the Fortín was loathe to forget that supposed betrayal, with fans booing him during the playing of the national anthem prior to a 0-0 draw in the opening match.
Zárate almost had the last laugh when he rattled the crossbar in the Bombonera in the second leg, another match where the quality of play and chances created belied the lack of goals as both teams had ample opportunities to push ahead. Vélez came closest at home, Boca keeping goalkeeper Lucas Hoyos on his toes in the first half of the return before his opposite number Esteban Andrada had to weather a storm following the break to protect a second goalless draw and send the tie to penalties.
Vélez probably shaded the two legs on the pitch, but there was no beating Boca from 12 yards out. Each Xeneize man slotted his kick past Hoyos with ease, while Braian Cufré blasted his over the bar to hand the hosts passage into the semis with a 5-4 shoot-out victory. Zárate was one of the players to net and, after a tense two games against his former club, treated the Bombonera to a rather enthusiastic celebration. Then, for good measure, he signed off to Fox Sports with: “The big team went through.”
Boca go on to face Argentinos tomorrow as the sole grande left in contention, but with plenty of doubts in place after failing to make much of an impression against an extremely complicated opponent.
One thing is clear: on the evidence of the past week Gustavo Alfaro’s men can take absolutely nothing for granted in a Copa that has already claimed a host of prestigious victims and which has provided enthralling viewing so far.