When the Copa Libertadores knock-out draw was made back at the end of May, it threw up more than a few surprises. For one, having pipped Corinthians to the top of Group E thanks to a late surge, Boca Juniors' reward was to take on the Brazilians again in the very next round. Additionally, the draw threw up not one but two all-Argentine clashes, with Colón slated to take on Talleres and River Plate paired up with Vélez Sarsfield, who sneaked into the last 16 with two wins in their last two games after making a horrendous start to the tournament.
Boca were up first, facing a daunting trip back to Arena Corinthians. The first clash in São Paulo at the start of the year had finished in a 2-0 defeat for Sebastián Battaglia's men and they looked determined not to suffer a repeat of the result, putting up a resolute defence and limiting the hosts to the bare minimum of chances in a tense, at times hard to watch goalless draw.
Even so, they once more relied on Agustín Rossi and his penalty-saving ability. Rossi made a crucial stop in the Copa de la Liga Profesional shoot-out against Racing Club to send his team on the way to victory and he repeated his heroics on Tuesday night, flying to his right to keep out Roger Guedes' effort just before half-time in what could prove a key moment in the tie. It was the seventh penalty he has faced since returning to Boca from Lanús in 2021, and the fifth he has saved – an extraordinary success rate that has made all the difference for the Xeneize.
The two teams will thus head to the Bombonera next week with all to play for with the quarter-finals within sight, though another tough game with scoring opportunities at a premium looks more than likely.
We already know that whatever happens with Boca there will be two teams at least in the Libertadores quarters, and one participant in the last four since either Colón or Talleres will meet River or Vélez in the next round. Wednesday's matches helped to supply a sizeable hint over the identity of that pair.
Colón struck first by taking the advantage in Córdoba. Away goals might not be as vital as they once were following CONMEBOL's rule change, but they are still awful handy to have around. And who better to supply one than the evergreen folk hero Luis Miguel 'Pulga' Rodríguez. The veteran started the first leg on the bench and needed all of three minutes to make the difference once he entered for Facundo Farías, a full 18 years his junior: Rodríguez's laser-guided free-kick found Ramón Ábila, whose header looped past Guido Herrera in the Talleres net to put Colón up just after the hour mark. Yet while the Sabalero were ready to celebrate, the hosts had other ideas, striking back through Alan Franco with just three minutes remaining to leave the tie wide open.
It was then up to Vélez to spring what may have been the biggest surprise of the evening, if not the entire round. Overwhelming favourites to dispatch their rivals with ease, River instead found themselves behind after just 15 minutes when Héctor Martínez committed a clumsy foul on Lucas Janson inside the penalty area. Janson himself stepped up to convert the resulting spot-kick to give the hosts a 1-0 advantage, one they would not give up for the rest of the encounter. If anything the score should have been even more comfortable in favour of the Liga Profesional strugglers, who had another strike ruled out for a marginal offside call and also saw Franco Armani thwart them on more than one occasion.
“We cannot play any worse than this,” coach Marcelo Gallardo admitted after the match. “Thanks to the result, the tie is still open. But we have to change our image.” River did indeed escape with a relatively kind result after a forgettable evening, but they will have to show a rapid improvement for the second leg if they wish to avoid early elimination from this year's Libertadores within just a few short days.