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SPORTS | 06-10-2023 11:23

Stars deliver as 10-man Boca edge through to Libertadores final

What is this Boca Juniors team? One that never, ever says die – and one you most definitely do not want to tangle with from the penalty spot.

Two weeks ago this column posed a testing question: what is this Boca Juniors team? The answer duly came on a gripping Thursday night in São Paulo. They are a team that, all its limitations aside, never, ever says die – and one you most definitely do not want to tangle with from the penalty spot.

It could, and most probably should have been easier. Against a Palmeiras side whose sole merit for the vast majority of the match was to make the Xeneize look an adventurous, dynamic offensive unit by comparison, Jorge Almirón's men still rode their luck on the way to their first Copa Libertadores final since 2018. But in the end, on big continental nights one often needs big contributions from just one or two big stars, and that is exactly what they got at either ends of the pitch.

At one end, Edinson Cavani. For a player of his talent and pedigree it was an almost unbearable anomaly. In his first 10 Boca games the Uruguayan, usually deadly in front of goal, had netted just once, and was still waiting for his first Copa Libertadores strike after three fruitless outings. Just as well then that when the goal finally came it would prove to be one of the biggest of his illustrious career to date.

With just under half an hour played he found himself in the perfect spot to push home a cross from compatriot Miguel Merentiel and silence most of Palmeiras' sleek, modern Allianz Parque home. To tell the truth, it was nothing more than the visitors deserved. The home side offered almost nothing going forward and, worse, committed the capital sin of leaving the electric Real Madrid-bound teenager Endrick on the bench once again, and their painfully timid approach received fitting punishment as Cavani and the visiting Boca faithful celebrated in their faces.

Then, almost inexplicably, it all began to unravel, and Boca had nobody to blame but themselves. Almirón pulled Merentiel from the action just 10 minutes into the second half when Cavani's attacking partner had been the best player on the field in favour of defender Bruno Valdéz and the resulting tactical shuffle effectively shut the Xeneize down when they were well on top.

To compound matters, the ever-volatile Marcos Rojo, who should have seen red for a nasty kick minutes earlier, put matters beyond any doubt as he chopped down Mayke with a horrendous challenge to leave his team with 10. With Endrick now finally in the action and tormenting the short-handed visitors the inevitable happened: another Uruguayan, Joaquín Piqueréz let loose from distance and tied the game, putting Palmeiras firmly in the ascendancy.

Time, then, for another hero to arise. With Boca seemingly lost on the field Sergio Romero took it upon himself to expel attack after Palmeiras attack, including a stunning late save which kept his side in the game. Then, once full-time was blown (to the relief of everyone in blue and gold) the inevitable occurred. Cavani's shootout miss was cancelled out as Chiquito saved from Raphael Veiga and then for good measure he palmed away Gustavo Gómez's effort while the remaining four Boca takers converted without further issues. Just as against Nacional and Racing, the former Argentina keeper proved his team's match-winner and kept the dream of the seventh Copa alive and kicking.

Not since December 2020 have Boca managed to win a Libertadores knockout game. All six of their matches in this year's phase have ended in draws, taking their drought to 12. Such was the malaise around the Bombonera following Sunday's capitulation at the hands of River that it was rumoured that another bad result would be the end of Almirón's short tenure at the Xeneize helm. But of course, none of that matters a jot right now. On November 4, the coach and his troops will match out one more time at the Maracaná against Fluminense, accompanied by tens of thousands of fans who, with or without tickets, will make every imaginable sacrifice to be there for their heroes. They may not win many friends, nor even win many matches, but this Boca team has proved its mettle, and that air of invincibility will give even the dazzling Flu food for thought in a final for the ages.

Dan Edwards

Dan Edwards

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