After long delay, Boca Juniors-River Plate still defined by unpredictibility
The much-delayed, highly controversial second leg of the Copa Libertadores final this Sunday may go to extra time and penalties -- and could go on even further.
The final whistle in Madrid may not be the end of the biggest Boca Juniors vs. River Plate clash in history. Boca do not believe there is any need for the game to be played. In their view, River should be kicked out of the competition, held fully responsible for the action of their fans on Nov. 24th, when the Boca team bus was attacked on its approach to the stadium. Boca are taking the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And so, whatever the outcome of Sunday's game, the destiny of the title still might be decided in the court room.
In the meantime, though, there is a game going ahead. And while it has been controversially moved to Madrid -- a bizarre choice for a competition named in honour of those who fought to free South America from Spain -- it remains the most high-profile clash in the history of the continent's club game.
And also one of the hardest to predict. One of the reasons for this is all of the fuss that has surrounded the game. The players have lived with the tension of this epic encounter even since the semifinals were concluded on Oct. 31st. The first leg of the final -- an unexpectedly open and exciting 2-2 draw -- was nearly a month ago.
To the abnormal pressures of the biggest ever Boca-River have been added all of the delays and the change of venue. Boca's Carlos Tevez said in the week that "it is important for the two groups of players to deal with the fact that we are playing in the Libertadores, so that it doesn't look like we're in a summer friendly match."
There is little chance of this -- not least because the game is taking place in the Madrid winter. The imposing surroundings of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium should reenforce the importance of the occasion, there is bound to be an impressive atmosphere -- and when they cross the white line none of the players are going to be thinking about this game as a glorified friendly.
Indeed, some of what the players are saying comes across as playing to the gallery, a ritual protest against the option to move the game to Spain. Tevez complained that "they have robbed us of the dream of performing the lap of honour in River's stadium." He must be aware, though, that this is an exercise in hypocrisy. Had the game been set for River's stadium in front of a crowd, then Boca would almost certainly not have turned up. And whatever might happen later in the court rooms, both teams are prepared for a full-on sporting battle to win the game.
The big unknown element, though, is how the scenario will affect the emotional states of the teams. The tactical approach of the teams is also not entirely clear. Both have deep squads with plenty of options -- and the two-week delay has given time for unfit players to recover.
Boca can now count on star winger Cristian Pavon and first-choice keeper Esteban Andrada, though River striker Ignacio Scocco may not be ready in time. Even so, River have a wider range of choices.
Boca have been practicing with two centre-forwards, Dario Benedetto and Ramon Abila in a 4-4-2 formation. They have other variations -- they started the first leg with two wingers, and can also use a 4-2-3-1 -- but they do not stray from an orthodox back four.
River, though, have the option of playing with three centre-backs -- the surprise they unleashed in the first leg, which helped them take an early stranglehold on the game. Coach Marcelo Gallardo will probably keep Boca guessing until the last moment, not showing his hand until he is obliged to hand over his team sheet.
From that point, it will be up to the players to do their thing. Later on, the lawyers will have their turn.