It took just over 180 seconds for River Plate’s Copa Libertadores dream to turn into a nightmare. Marcelo Gallardo’s charges led for almost the entirety of last Saturday’s showpiece against fearsome Flamengo, and looked set to become the first team to retain South America’s most prestigious club trophy since arch-rivals Boca Juniors at the start of the 21st century.
Unfortunately for the Argentines, however, and the thousands of fans that pushed their credit cards to the limit in buying last-minute plane tickets for the final in Lima – one group of supporters even braved a gruelling eight-day round trip travelling overland to the game – one Gabriel Barbosa had other ideas. Effectively shackled for the vast majority of the 90 minutes, the flamboyant Flamengo forward finally broke free right at the end to cancel out Rafael Borré’s strike and then hit the winner, to the delight of the equally sizeable Brazilian support in Lima’ Estadio Monumental.
The upshot was that Gallardo finally tasted defeat in a Libertadores final after two previousvictories, a loss that will barely taint his sparkling legacy at the helm of the Millonario that has coincided with perhaps the most successful era in club history. But as River look forward following Saturday’s anguish the question remains: where to from here?
Gallardo’s future is naturally the biggest uncertainty plaguing Núñez right now. The coach, a rookie on the bench when he took over back in 2014, is now one of the world’s most-coveted tacticians, linked with teams in Europe’s of Barcelona’s stature. He may be under contract until 2021 at the Monumental, but after five years taking River to the very top of South American football El Muñeco could be forgiven for considering a new challenge.
“The year is not over yet for us, even though this final was our big goal, the year has not come to an end,” he told reporters. “We will have to bounce back and think about what comes next. Later, at the end of the year, we will see.” Gallardo’s words were echoed by club president Rodolgo D’Onofrio, who said of the coach to Radio Metro: “If he feels he has the goals and energy to continue, he will continue. He will decide that when the time is right.”
Whether Gallardo stays or leaves, once the Superliga season restarts following the holidays River’s team is likely to have a rather different look. The chronic devaluation and rampant inflation that has ravaged the Argentine economy over the last two years has taken its toll too on the country’s football and, for all their success, River are no exception. “Right now the situation here is incomparable with the money on offer elsewhere in world football,” D’Onofrio added. “Offers are going to arrive or the players themselves will be knocking on the door to go abroad.”
Young Argentina national team duo Exequiel Palacios and Lucas Martínez Quarta rank among those most likely to seek new climes, with the former previously courted by Real Madrid and now in the gaze of Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, home to another River Libertadores hero in the shape of Lucas Alario. Colombia duo Juan Quintero and Borré are two others who would bring in much-needed hard currency with sales, while right-back Gonzalo Montiel and even goalkeeper Franco Armani could be in line for a fresh beginning elsewhere.
It is a scenario Gallardo has faced many times before, constantly having to build up his team as success attracts interest and big-money offers from afar. But perhaps for the first time, after such crushing disappointment in Lima, the coach may feel his work is done and that it is time for somebody else to take the baton and the challenge of keeping River among South America’s elite.
That is a status El Muñeco,
through his inspired football
brain and love for all things
Millo, has done more than anyone else to cement, ensuring
in the process his own place
amongst the club’s biggest historical idols that has not been
moved a jot by the events of last