In a game where pragmatism prevailed over good soccer, Argentina’s River Plate and Mexico’s Tigres tied 0-0 for the first leg of the Copa Libertadores‘ final. The result leaves an open scenario for the Argentine team to bring the artillery in the definitive game, so as to get the continent’s most important championship home after 19 long years. On the other hand, Tigres will have to keep a clean sheet to have a chance to get its first star ever on a Mexican team’s jersey.
River last played a decisive Copa match in 1996, back when the Macarena was number 1 on Billboard’s top 100 singles. Remember the Macarena? Neither do I. Back then, Hernán Crespo scored twice to beat Colombian team América de Cali by a 2-0 score and got the Argentine team its second Libertadores ever. Legend Enzo Francescoli lifting the cup before a packed Monumental stadium became a postcard image every millonario fan holds on his retina.
They probably danced the Macarena in celebration after.
Back to the present. River’s level through the tournament could be compared to an upswing. The Nuñez’ team level was painful to watch during the first matches and it looked like it would get knocked out on the first round. However, a Tigres victory in the last match allowed Gallardo’s team to get a spot in the round of 16 teams. Who knew that that helping hand could come back and smack the Mexican team on the back of its head.
Having gotten to the knockout round with only seven points, River had to face its arch nemesis, Boca, which had won its first six matches and arrived to the clash as the clear favorite. However, Superclásicos have a mind of their own, and the pressure worked perfectly for the underdogs to get their juice back, despite the Bombonera scandal. Neither Cruzeiro nor Guaraní stood a chance against the Argentine team in its way to the final, where destiny would see it face Tigres to define who got crowned as the continent’s finest.
Under a suffocating heat, over 40,000 Mexican fans saw the teams take the field (while 400 Argentines who somehow managed to get tickets tried to make themselves heard from a far corner of the stadium).
Neither team controlled the game during the first minutes: it looked like the ball was a hot potato. Without much clarity, both teams crushed over and over against the rival defense once they got close to the box. Slowly, River took over the midfield and started to play the game on Tigres’ side of the pitch. The away team tried to get close to the goal through crossed balls, but without any success. However, the most dangerous play came in the 18th minute, when River’s Ramiro Funes Mori almost scored an own-goal after trying to deflect a crossed ball. The crossbar saved him from eternal damnation.
Said fortuitous play seemed to provide a boost for the Mexican team, which started to get close to its opponent’s box, and almost took the lead when French star sign Pierre Gignac connected a header inside the small box that goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero saved by being in the right place at the right time.
The last 25 minutes were dominated by fouls and rough play and didn’t let the game develop fluidly.
River got some pretty bad news during halftime. Uruguayans Tabaré Viudez and Rodrigo Mora both suffered muscular injuries that wouldn’t allow them to continue disputing the most important game of their lives to date. They were replaced by Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez and Nicolás Bertolo, respectively.
Despite having taken the field due to their teammates injuries, both subs were very active and the ones who led River during the first minutes of the second half. Despite the away team’s hints at domination, the tables started to turn around the 55th minute. Tigres started to impose its way but, same as when its rival called the shots, without any real opportunities to score.
The most exciting thing in the game until the 70th minute took place in the sidelines when after a vehement complain, coach Gallardo got sent to the showers early. It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that a team actually got close to getting ahead in the score. Tigres’ Jürgen Damm (he’s actually Mexican. No, really.) faced Barovero without any opposition after Leonel Vangioni missed an easy ball, but made the wrong call and saw his crossed ball deflected by a defender.
River endured the pain through the last minutes. Fulminated by the heat, the Argentine players defended the result with tooth and nail. Finally, the referee ended Tigres’ siege, which seemed like it had a goal coming right around the corner. In retrospect, it was a close game, but the Mexicans had the closest shots.
With an open series, the match at the Monumental will define the champion, same scenario as 19 years ago. Coach Gallardo will have to find a replacement for key player Gabriel Mercado, who won’t be able to play due to an accumulation of yellow cards, and will have to wait for Viudez and Mora’s injuries to heal to determine which players will make the team.
Last time, River fans turned the stadium into a giant red and white flare to welcome the team, in what they call “El mejor recibimiento de la historia” (“The best welcome in history”). Expect no less next week. Shit will go down.