They are an unstoppable juggernaut, with a driver adept at negotiating the twists and turns of even the most perilous roads.
River Plate continued on their march in the Copa Libertadores this week with a pitiless dispatching of highly fancied Independiente. It is a result that surely puts Marcelo Gallardo’s status as Argentina’s most talented tactician beyond a shadow of a doubt.
One must look back to February of this year, when they fell 1-0 to Vélez Sarsfield, to find the last time River lost a competitive game of football. Since then 31 games have come and gone without defeat, a run that has seen the Millonarios book a place in the Libertadores semis for the third time in four years, as well as reach the last four of the Copa Argentina, down Boca Juniors in the Supercopa and, for good measure, establish themselves back in the top four of the current Superliga campaign.
The newspaper headlines from that last reverse seem to belong to a different century. “What now, River?” asked La Nación the following day, pointing to the “deepening of the crisis” at the Núñez club. “One more blow for a River team who cannot pull out of this crisis that afflicts them,” added Olé.
While those sensationalist hot takes go to prove that six months is a near-eternity in the evervolatile world of Argentine football, it is also testament to the capacity of Gallardo in his post, to first pull River out of their tailspin and then consolidate them once more as one of South America’s elite teams.
River are admittedly blessed with a squad packed with rich talent. From World Cup participants like Enzo Pérez, Franco Armani and Juan Fernando Quintero, through youngsters Pity Martínez and Exequiel Palacio, to the grizzled old heads of Javier Pinola and inveterate goalscorer Ignacio Scocco, there is a natural balance in the Millo squad that makes for superb flowing football on its best days. But there is much more to the club’s sustained success since Gallardo walked back through the doors in 2014, a comparative age ago.
Where the coach excels in competition with his rivals across the rest of Buenos Aires’ ‘Big Five’ is in his impeccable reading of the game-in-progress, and ability to make the appropriate changes.
In the previous round of the Libertadores, Gallardo knew that with Racing Club and the cavalier Eduardo Coudet on the opposing side, the key to victory was to wait for the opponent to lose shape and the gaps to appear and punch hard on the counter. River essentially surrendered possession over the two legs of the last-16 clash but still prevailed comfortable 3-0 winners in a crushing result at the Monumental.
When Boca welcomed their arch-rivals to the Bombonera in September, meanwhile, Gallardo crowded out the hosts’ midfield with numbers, starving the Xeneize forwards of decent possession while again hitting hard and fast in isolated attacks. And for the Independiente yet another shape emerged: a team better prepared to take the initiative and bypass the stretched Rojo engine room.
Even in moments of adversity, River did not lose their cool. Many teams would have panicked when a most uncharacteristic error from Franco Armani allowed the Avellaneda side to pull back to 1-1 in the second half, a result that would have sent them into the semis. Not the Millo. Not Gallardo.
With Independiente instantly retreating into their shells and playing for time he recognised that the moment called not for another forward, which would have confused River’s attacking rhythm, but a master locksmith to ease open the door to the net. Quintero came off the bench and duly restored River’s advantage minutes later, while the introduction of speedster Nicolás De La Cruz gave the home team the edge needed to slide through the holes left by a team in sudden disarray and dire need of goals.
Gallardo is ,of course, only human, and makes mistakes like the rest of us. But his cold, analytic mind gives him a distinct advantage when it most matters, a quality which goes a long way to explaining why River have impressed so consistently in cup competitions since his arrival. It is why no team, least of all Boca – who may yet meet their enemies in a Libertadores Superclásico final that promises to paralyse the entire country – will want to meet the Millo in what remains of South America’s most prestigious trophy.