The 2018 final of the Copa Libertadores is unique for two reasons. Firstly, this will be the last time the final will be played over two legs. From next season, the final will be a one-game affair played at a neutral venue (akin to the UEFA Champions League).
However and far more importantly, the final will witness unarguably the biggest rivalry in South American football (and one of the biggest in the world).
Both based in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, Boca Juniors and River Plate have shared a rivalry since 1906. The rivalry dubbed the Superclasico is one that polarizes the entire nation with both clubs claiming 70% of football supporters in the nation.
It is a rivalry that has seen it all; amazing goals, madness on the pitch and in the stands, colourful insults and a riotous and rich atmosphere unmatched in world football.
It is against this backdrop that the Copa Libertadores final will be played. It is an advertiser’s wet dream in the same way an El Clasico final would be in the UEFA Champions League.
The route to the Copa Libertadores (Superclasico) final
Going into the 2018 edition of the Copa Libertadores, the Superclasico rivals were not favourites to make it this far. Clubs from Brazil had been seen as the favoured sides. This was due to clubs from Brazil having better financial backing. São Paulo-based Palmeiras led by World Cup winner Luiz Scolari was the bookies' favourite.
The initial group stages saw River Plate handily win Group D with 12 points from 6 games. This group included Flamengo (Brazil), Santa Fe (Colombia) and Emelec (Ecuador).
On the other hand, Boca came second in Group H, three points behind group winners Corinthians. The group included Atletico Junior (Colombia) and Allianz Lima (Peru)
Boca or Xeneizes (Genoese) defeated Libertad (Paraguay) 6-2 on aggregate in the second round. They outed Cruzeiro (Brazil) 3-1 in the quarterfinals to set up a semi-final date with Palmeiras.
On the other hand, River Plate or Los Millonarios (The Millionaires) beat Argentine opposition in the second round and quarterfinals. They beat Racing Club (second round) and Independiente (quarterfinals) 3-1 on aggregate both times.
The 2018 Copa Libertadores semi-finals were a sight to behold
Thanks to its potent mix of culture and passion, football in South America is unlike anywhere else in the world.
The semi-final pitted two clubs from the biggest nations in the continent against each other. It was Brazil versus Buenos Aires (Argentina) as Boca Juniors faced off against Palmeiras while River Plate took on Gremio.
In the first leg played at the always colourful La Bombonera, Boca beat Palmeiras 2-0 with two late goals from top marksmen Dario Benedetto. The reverse was the case for River Plate. They lost 0-1 to Gremio at the Estadio La Monumental.
The second leg ties produced drama aplenty. Trailing from the first leg, Marcelo Gallardo’s River produced a stirring comeback to beat their Brazilian hosts 2-1 to qualify on away goals. At half-time, Gallardo was in the dressing room to talk to his team. This was in spite of him being banned for a previous offence. It was a breach of CONMEBOL’s rules and although admitted to it, he only got a fine and suspension.
Producing one of its finest performances this season, Guillermo Barros Schelotto led his Boca team to a creditable 2-2 draw at the Allianz Parque qualifying 4-2 on aggregate.
The Superclasico final the world has been waiting for
Despite many close shaves especially in the last decade, the UCL is yet to witness its first El Clasico final. The Copa Libertadores has waited 58 years for its first Superclasico final; both legs promise to be spectacles.
The rivalry between the clubs is one that is super fascinating to read about. In terms of trophies won, it is similar to the Italian Serie A rivalry between AC Milan and Juventus.
Like AC Milan in Italy, Boca Juniors have won fewer league titles (33) than their rivals (36). However, the Azul y Oro (Blue and Gold) have won the Libertadores title 6 times, three times more than La Banda (The Stripe)
Both clubs have their origins in La Boca, the working class dockland area of Buenos Aires. However, in 1925, River Plate moved to the northern district of Núñez.
This led to Boca Juniors becoming the club of Argentina’s working class. Many of its fanatical fans come from the local Italian immigrant community earning the nickname of Xeneizes. This is a homage to their Italian roots.
This move out of Boca earned River Plate the Los Millonarios nickname. This is because being based in Núñez gave the club an upper-class support base. However, both clubs draw support across all social classes.
Boca fans refer to River supporters as Gallinas (chickens). They refer to River players/fans as pampered children who lack guts. On the other hand, River fans refer to their Boca rivals as Los Chanchitos (little pigs). This is due to the belief that La Bombonera still located in the less affluent La Boca area smells most of the time.
What to expect in the final
Both sides are led by former players; Schelotto and Gallardo who understand the importance attached to this final.
Under Gallardo, the former local hero who took over in 2014, River Plate plays a cultured passing style with emphasis on short passing and constant rotational movement. The team contains talented internationals who did not make the grade in Europe; Enzo Perez, Juan Quintero, Bruno Zuculini among others.
Quintero will probably start as the playmaker behind either Daniel Pratto or Ignacio Scocco. Argentine international Franco Armani should start in goal with Jonathan Maidana and Javier Pinola playing in central defence.
Captain Leonardo Pozio will marshall the midfield. Perez, Zuculini, Pity Martínez or Nacho Fernández will be in competition to start as well.
Boca Juniors play a sort of vertical tiki-taka with 4-3-3 the preferred formation. Coach Schelotto loves playing on the front foot and dominating possession. Benedetto should start up top with pacy winger Carlos Pavon on the right. On-loan Colombian midfielder Edwin Cardona may start on the left. As the game goes on, he might switch to play the number 10 role.
Leonardo Jarra and Frank Fabra will probably start as fullbacks with Nahitan Nández and the disciplined Wilmar Barrios playing in the midfield. The highly-rated Paolo Goltz should be the choice to start in central defence. Pairing him might be Lisandro Magallán.
Both coaches love playing on the front foot. With the first leg at the 49,000-capacity La Bombonera, the onus will be on Boca Juniors to take the game to their hated rivals.
A Superclasico to end all Superclasicos
The rivalry has had more than its fair share of violence. Hence, both sets of players may do just about anything to achieve victory.
The Superclasico is unique for its colour, noise, and pageantry. Both matches at La Bomobonera and El Monumental promise an explosion of colours, amazing tifos, and fireworks amidst a carnival-like atmosphere.
2016 was the last time the Superclasico rivals played out a goalless draw. So much is on the line; prestige, glory, the Copa Libertadores trophy and above all, eternal bragging rights. It promises to be one of the great cup finals of all-time.
Also Read: The derby of all derbies - The Superclásico