Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Copa Libertadores: River Plate on their way to Abu Dhabi for Fifa Club World Cup

Argentine side become champions of South America after beating their Buenos Aires rivals 3-1 (5-3 on aggregate) in Madrid

After three postponed matches and a rescheduled second leg 10,000 kilometres from the original venue, after a match which also needed extra time, South America finally has a winner.

River Plate will represent the continent at the 2018 Fifa Club World Cup which begins in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. Guillermo Barros’s men overcame their greatest rivals in the biggest game in Argentinian club football history last night at Real Madrid’s Bernabéu.

It was the 26th time that Argentina’s two biggest clubs had met in the Libertadores tournament, but this was their first encounter in the final. Boca has the edge historically and took the lead after 44 minutes, but River replied with three goals in a dramatic end to this most tense and theatrical of finals.

As Boca – down to 10 men and with a player clearly injured – pushed for a late equaliser, River’s Gonzalo Martinez broke away in the 121st minute. Boca’s exhausted players had no chance of catching River’s number 10.

They had thrown everything forward and hit the post seconds earlier, with goalkeeper Esteban Andrada playing outfield for the final eight minutes, yet every single blue and yellow shirt chased the ball back.

They could only watch the inevitable desperately as Martinez put the ball into an empty net to make it 3-1 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate. Football can be so cruel.

Football’s finest stadium isn’t normally known for its atmosphere. Madrid fans are spoiled and sated and will watch their side in the World Club Cup for the fourth time in five years (and they won all four), but the Bernabéu came alive to the throbbing beat of Argentinian terrace songs which will catch on around the stadiums of world football.

Those fans, who’d been largely peaceful in the Spanish capital under a heavy 4,000-strong security operation, witnessed an aggressive, mistake-strewn match short on quality and with an excess of mis-timed tackles. Eight yellow cards and one red were flourished.

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It’s part of the appeal which makes Argentinian football so enthralling and while playing the game outside Argentina won little support from Argentinians, it gave an opportunity for around 60,000 Argentinians who live in Spain to see the game.

They were proper football fans rather than monied football tourists and there were a few thousand fans from each club who travelled across the Atlantic. However, the precedent should not be copied. Madrid was the venue because of exceptional circumstances in Argentina which has serious issues around its football.

It should not be a marker for football’s flagship continental matches to be given to the highest bidder away from the fans who make the tournaments so special.

This season’s Libertadores was special, with Brazil v Argentina semi-finals. Forty-seven teams from ten South American countries entered the competition.

The previous format would not have allowed for two teams from the same country to meet in the final, but River and Boca overcame the best teams from Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Argentina to get there.

After the first leg was drawn 2-2 at Boca and the second was shifted to Spain, Dario Benedetto put Boca ahead, coolly finishing in front of six tiers of his own fans. He’d been put one on one with goalkeeper Franco Armani after a pass from the halfway line from excellent Nahitan Nandez.

Benedetto celebrated by pulling his tongue out and bulging his eyes at River defender Exequiel Palacios.

The organisers had tried to keep the Argentinian theme, with the kick off displayed in Argentinian time rather than Spanish and the country’s national anthem played before the game – plus a dozen ear-splitting pop songs.

By the time River equalised through Lucas Pratto – a former Boca youth player – after 68 minutes, River had asserted their superiority, but it took until the 102nd minute for Juan Quintero to put his team ahead when he lashed the ball past Esteban Andrada from the edge of the 18-yard box.

River had a two-man advantage since the successive fouls of Boca’s Wilmar Barrios earned him a second yellow in five minutes and dismissal to the stands after 92 minutes. Martinez’s goal, the eighth of the final, came seconds before the final whistle of extra time. River’s staff invaded the Bernabéu pitch, with a map of South America cut into the centre circle.

Madrid and Spain will be pleased at how they staged the game, which attracted 72,281 fans to the 81,000 capacity stadium. Argentina and Uruguay hope to stage the 2030 World Cup finals – as does Spain in another joint bid with Portugal.

That Conmebol, South America’s governing association, doesn’t think Argentina was capable of staging their biggest domestic game in their own country is hardly a great recommendation.

Not that such politicking mattered to the fans of Argentina’s two biggest clubs as they flooded out of the Bernabéu, Boca’s distraught not just because they’d lost in the final of the biggest club match in South America, but because it was against their rivals River.

Although there could be an unlikely sting in the tail. Boca still have an appeal pending to throw River out of the competition.

Updated: December 10, 2018 05:31 PM

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