In the build-up to Tuesday’s Copa Libertadores semifinal first leg, Mauricio Macri, the president of Argentina – and, of course, avid Boca Juniors supporter – caused a stir with his repeated assertion that August’s PASO primary elections “did not happen.” While in public at least the head of state assures that both the polls and the tie can still be turned around, he must now be wishing that the tie’s opening match at the Monumental had not occurred either.
In the context of last year’s infamous Superclásico final, tainted by violent incidents, and the less than inspiring Superliga draw played out by the two teams at the start of September, it was refreshing at least to see football take centre-stage in the opener.
Unfortunately for Boca, all the plaudits went River Plate’s way as they comprehensively outplayed their rivals to take a 2-0 win from the Monumental. The Xeneize may not face quite as uphill a struggle as Macri faces in overturning that scoreline in the return match but if they put in a similarly uninspiring performance in front of their own fans at the end of October, Gustavo Alfaro’s charges will be staring elimination square in the face.
Buoyed by a steely defensive display that frustrated River less than a month ago, the coach took his side to Núñez hoping for a repeat, packing the midfield and looking to crowd out the ever-dangerous hosts far from the Xeneize net.
Perhaps on another day Alfaro’s strategy could have borne fruit. As it turned out a brainless challenge from leftback Emanuel Mas saw Boca concede a VAR-given penalty just seven minutes into the game – which was expertly converted by Rafael Santos Borré – to give Boca the worst possible start.
From that point the visitors’ entire game plan had to be jettisoned and replaced by a timid effort to get back into the match that never fully convinced, although Nicolás Capaldo (who saw red in injury time) could and should have levelled the game in the first half. Boca’s slow, pondering attacking efforts rarely tested the Millonario defence while at the other end, every time Marcelo Gallardo’s men pushed forward the away net looked under threat.
Only a fantastic rearguard effort from Esteban Andrada in particular and to a lesser extent the Xeneize’s defensive lone ranger in the middle, Carlos Izquierdoz, avoided a humiliating defeat. As it stands River will be more than happy with the two-goal margin secured at the Monumental, Ignacio Fernández confirming his brilliant recent form in front of the net by polishing off a flowing Millo attack after half time while the Boca backline watched motionless.
Perhaps even more concerning for Boca than the defeat itself is the attitude of senior figures in the club in denying what was all-too plain to see: that River were by far a superior football force on Tuesday. In what way is the Xeneize’s cause aided by Carlos Tevez, a player of vast experience who should know better, insinuating pay-offs to referees with a hand gesture in reference to VAR’s (correct) intervention on the penalty? Or Ramón Ábila sneering that “the VAR guys have credit on their phones because they always call”? When Alfaro claims that River players “always look for the foul” and that “they are permanently diving,” is the coach working in some Machiavellian manner to influence the refereeing three weeks from now in the Bombonera? Or is it a case of a coach who was badly found out by his counterpart and is clutching at straws for any excuse for the previous 90 minutes?
Anything could yet happen in the second leg on October 22, including a famous
Boca comeback that would,
if not erase memories of Madrid, at least begin to ease
the pain of that final defeat.
But unless Alfaro and his
charges stop looking at the
VAR cabin and concentrate
on stopping arguably the
best team on the continent,
chances of that happening
look slim. The referees were
not responsible for River’s
triumph; the hosts were aided and abetted by a Xeneize
side who played entirely into
their rivals’ hands.