River Plate and Boca Juniors are back – and this time, it's public. The fifth Superclásico of 2021 will be the first with at least one set of fans in the stadium, as the Monumental crowd returns just in time for the latest outing against their team's arch-rivals.
It has been a long time coming. Despite the glut of games between the two giants, the long-standing restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic mean that two years almost to the day have passed since supporters were last able to witness this showpiece fixture. On that occasion the setting was none other than a Copa Libertadores semi-final, as a packed Bombonera watched Gustavo Alfaro's men beat River 1-0 – a result that was not quite enough to turn around the two-goal deficit the Millonarios had accrued in the first leg and thus avoid a second elimination from the tournament in as many years at the hands of Boca's arch-nemesis Marcelo Gallardo.
In many ways little has changed since that clash in October 2019. River and Boca fans continue to bicker over every marginal Superclásico, as well as bringing up defeat in Madrid and relegation respectively as the most horrifying thing ever to befall any football team. Gallardo is still there too, of course, and while Sebastián Battaglia will oversee his first derby from the visitors' bench after replacing Miguel Ángel Russo the new coach has years of experience to draw on from his playing days. It is on the pitch, however, that the biggest alterations can be glimpsed.
River are likely to field as few as four survivors from the last Superclásico line-up with fans in attendance, of whom only Nicolás de la Cruz is the right side of 30. The outlook in the home team is even more drastic. Battaglia could pick an entirely different team to the side Alfaro sent out in the Copa, with only midfielder Agustín Almendra in with a chance of repeating his inclusion from two years ago. Some of the absentees have moved on to Europe or Mexico, others fell out of favour or retired; but what it points to is a chronic lack of stability which does nothing to aid Argentina's elite clubs.
By way of comparison, Rio giants Flamengo progressed to another Libertadores final on Thursday at the expense of Barcelona with eight of the same starters which took down River in the decider in Lima back in 2019. The new faces are no slouches either: the Mengão have added Chile and Brazil internationals Mauricio Isla and David Luiz to their defence while welcoming ex-Manchester United midfielder Andrés Pereira into the engine room. To put it short, while both Buenos Aires giants have chopped, changed and diminished in stature since their last meeting in front of supporters, their continental rival has only got stronger, as have the other leading Brazilian clubs who are dominating the Libertadores and Sudamericana this year.
The situation elsewhere in the Liga Profesional is even more extreme when it comes to personnel turnover, a phenomenon which is long-standing and has become even more acute with the economic crisis Argentina is suffering, and which inevitably effects both the quality of the action on offer and clubs' ability to fight on even ground when it comes to international competition. There is no easy way out for River, Boca and their compatriots, and while fans will flock back this weekend after their 18-month exile from the stands they do so in the knowledge that what the quality of what they will be watching has taken a severe dip since the last time the turnstiles were open in those halcyon pre-Covid days that now feel like a lifetime away.