Football

Boca’s Copa Libertadores heartbreak, River Plate’s struggles ensures Brazilian giants’ dominance

Boca’s Copa Libertadores heartbreak, River Plate’s struggles ensures Brazilian giants’ dominance
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With the quarterfinal places now filled in the Copa Libertadores, realistically there was only one hope that all eight spots would not entirely be filled by clubs from Brazil and Argentina.

In last week’s first leg, Libertad of Paraguay only lost 2-1 away to Athletico Paranaense of Brazil. So when Roque Santa Cruz, a few months short of his 41st birthday, danced through the Brazilian defense to level the aggregate scores with a fine solo goal, the chance remained of the 2022 Libertadores not becoming the exclusive property of the continent’s big two leagues.

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It all seemed destined for a penalty shoot-out. But the Brazilian strength in depth told in the end. Romulo came off the bench to score the vital goal in the last few seconds, and Athletico go marching on.

Elsewhere, Emelec of Ecuador did better than expected against Brazilian league and cup winners Atletico Mineiro. After a 1-1 draw in Guayaquil, few gave Emelec much hope of holding Atletico in Belo Horizonte. True, they never once looked like scoring, but they defended astutely, closing down space and preventing the link up between playmaker Nacho Fernandez and centre-forward Hulk.

Atletico were missing winger Ademir, their goalscorer in the first leg, and for all their effort they were finding it hard to get behind the Ecuadorian defence. A shoot out was beginning to become a concern when, perhaps with a touch of fortune, Atletico scored the deciding goal. Defender Eddie Guevara was pointing a colleague into position. Eduardo Vargas blasted the ball against his arm and the referee awarded a penalty. Hulk had a spot kick saved last week, but made no mistake this time and, on merit but not as convincingly as expected, Atletico Mineiro went into the last eight.

Paraguay’s Cerro Porteno were predictably blown away by defending champions Palmeiras. Already 3-0 up from the first leg, the Brazilians did it again — taking their time and then surgically taking the opposition to pieces on their way to an 8-0 aggregate win. Flamengo, last year’s runners-up, blow more hot and cold than Palmeiras. For much of last week’s first leg, a 1-0 win away to Tolima of Colombia, it had been the latter. They were flattered by the scoreline. But in front of their own fans they were irresistible in the return game, with center forward Pedro, an outside bet to go to the World Cup, scoring four and setting up others in a memorable 7-1 thrashing.

With the rest of the continent ruled out of contention, the issue was the quarterfinal balance between Brazil and Argentina. Would it be four teams each? Or maybe 6-2 to Brazil?

It ended up being five to three. Throughout the competition, Estudiantes have hinted that they might be Argentina’s strongest contenders, and they reenforced that impression with a convincing win over Fortaleza, the Brazilian debutants whose campaign has been great fun, but which ends in a melancholy manner. There was everything to play for after a 1-1 first leg draw in Brazil.

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But the return match, the biggest in Fortaleza’s history, proved too big. The team were emotionally out of their depth and perhaps fortunate to suffer just one red card. Estudiantes were better from first whistle to last, and could have won by a margin greater than 3-0.

The other Brazil vs. Argentina clash was far tighter — so tight that it produced no goals in either leg, and ended up with Corinthians coming through a penalty shoot out and eliminating Boca Juniors — who parted company after the game with coach Sebastian Battaglia. A year ago Boca crashed out at the same stage in much the same way — on penalties after two goalless draws against Brazilian opposition. That time they were slightly better than Atletico Mineiro and pointed the finger of blame at VAR. This time they were far superior to Corinthians, but only have themselves to blame — or one of their own heroes.

Corinthians barely created a chance at home and, admittedly with a team weakened by injuries, did not even have a shot in Buenos Aires. Boca had the chances, but center forward Dario Benedetto made a mess of them. Boca had a penalty in the second leg — Benedetto blasted against the post. And then there was a shot at redemption in the shoot-out. He stepped up for Boca’s fifth penalty. If he scored, Boca had won. He went for the top corner but, nerve shattered, horribly miscalibrated and the ball ballooned above the bar.

Boca keeper Agustin Rossi got his hand to the next two penalties but could not keep them out and, amazingly after producing so little, Corinthians made it through.

There was the guarantee of two Argentine sides in the quarters — and now there is a guarantee of one semifinalist, because the two winners of these domestic affairs will now meet each other. In the battle of the provincial sides, Talleres of Cordoba won 2-0 away to Colon of Santa Fe to come through 3-1 on aggregate.

Colon were deeply disappointing, reorganizing their side around folk hero Luis « Piojito » Rodriguez but never managing to find any rhythm. Talleres were worthy qualifiers for their first quarterfinal.

And there was a shock in the other game, where River Plate were unable to overhaul their 1-0 first leg loss against Velez Sarsfield. A slick passing move right at the start ended with Braian Romero glancing the post, leaving the impression that River were going to be irresistible. But the last game of Julian Alvarez before joining Manchester City was not a happy one. The young Velez side defended with discipline and attacked when they could. River seemed to have leveled it on aggregate right at the end when Ezequiel Barco’s cross was nodded in at the far post by Mathias Suarez.

But after a long VAR delay, seemingly with disagreements between the review team and the match referee, the goal was controversially ruled out. Over the two legs, though, a Velez win was probably the right result, and after a disastrous start to the tournament they now have an excellent chance of reaching the seedlings.

For River, though, the frustration is enormous. Since winning the trophy in 2018 they have fallen at an earlier stage every year, always to Brazilian opponents. Now they have been eliminated even earlier, this time to fellow Argentines — one of the most disappointing moments in the long reign of Marcelo Gallardo. Five Brazilian teams are left to fight for the title, along with three Argentines — and River and Boca are not among them.

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