As expected, any hopes (or fears) of a repeat of 2018's Superclásico Copa Libertadores were extinguished over the course of 48 hours this week. One of Buenos Aires' two giants nevertheless came out rather better placed than the other; the only surprise was the identity of the team that was left defeated but not down-heartened by the results of the semi-finals.
River Plate fell agonisingly short of an historic comeback in São Paulo on Tuesday when, trailing 3-0 from the opener, they dominated Palmeiras across the 90 minutes and took a 2-0 victory. Gonzalo Montiel additionally saw his would-be equaliser ruled out, Rafael Borré rattled the woodwork from a position in which it appeared impossible not to score and River also had two penalty claims turned down by VAR, whose eagle eye then failed to see a full-blooded punch to the jaw of Paulo Díaz from Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton which would have resulted in a spot-kick.
Boca, meanwhile, fell to Santos by the same scoreline that left River so humiliated after the first leg. But for the Xeneize there would be no second chance, no opportunity to use that anger to their advantage. Just the most timid of exits for a side that prides itself on never giving up, never giving an inch in such decisive continental matches, and huge doubts on where they go from here.
Hindsight is of course always a useful yet misleading tool when constructing such narratives. River's heroics would not have been necessary had they not played such a chaotic, mistake-ridden 90 minutes in Avellaneda to begin with; and had the ties results occurred in reverse we would doubtlessly be talking about the club's psychological meltdown rather than praising one of the finest matches of the entire Marcelo Gallardo era. Nevertheless, it can be said without hesitation that Gallardo's charges went down on their own terms, playing the way their coach has always insisted upon: high-pressure, hectic football, striving for the net at all times even, as in the opener, if it leaves you open to the counter and possible goals against. The Millonario now gear up for a difficult mini-off-season likely to be filled with exit rumours and actual departures in order to balance the books, but the manner of their demise still leaves plenty of optimism for the coming year.
Such a feeling is in scarce supply around La Boca. Carlos Tevez's desperate quest to add another Libertadores trophy to his huge collection suffered yet another unhappy ending on Wednesday as Santos ran riot, the 3-0 scoreline barely doing justice to the hosts' dominance at Vila Belmiro. Defeat does happen, but the real concern for Boca comes in the manner of losing: over 180 minutes of the semi they managed a pitiful three shots on target, and aside from a brief encouraging spell in the wake of Santos' first goal rarely threatened to find their way back into the clash.
It did not take long for an illustrious Xeneize figure of yesteryear to come out swinging. “I don't think any player goes out on the field to lose, but there were attitudes we didn't like, which were reprehensible,” former Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup-winning defender Mauricio Serna fired to TyC Sports. “They are the first to know they were not up to the task.”
Boca at least have the consolation of a final in the Copa Maradona to look forward to. On Sunday at 10.10pm, they will take on Banfield in San Juan, in a game that held secondary importance until Wednesday evening but now has become a must-win in order to stave off a potential crisis at the Bombonera. Even if they win, however, the shadow of defeat against Santos will loom large over Miguel Ángel Russo and his players, who seemed to glimpse the road to a seventh Libertadores triumph clear ahead with River's elimination but now are once more lost in the wilderness and mourning yet another Copa disaster.