River Plate v Boca Juniors: Superclasico semi should be more serene second act
German Esmerado, Omnisport's Latin America Editor, assesses the landscape ahead of a massive semi-final clash between the two biggest clubs in Argentine football.
River Plate and Boca Juniors face each other again in a crucial stage of the Copa Libertadores, but the atmosphere is vastly different from the build-up to the 2018 final.
That historic showpiece, which incredibly ended up being decided in Madrid after the incidents that occurred before the second leg at the Monumental Stadium, is still very present in the minds of both sets of supporters.
But this time the climate between the fans is calmer. Both sides learned anxiety must be lowered, and the reality is this is, by comparison, a tie of minor importance. A semi-final played just one year after an historic final, inevitably loses some value, although neither team wants to lose it.
There will be more than 2,000 police officers guarding both the streets surrounding the Monumental Stadium and the Boca Juniors bus, the windows of which have been shielded following the events of last year. The rain of stones that ended up injuring players and executives not only took the final to Madrid, but also saw the team's security chief fired amid accusations of negligence.
The authorities do not want a repeat of the scenes of 12 months ago and River fans want to see the game in their stadium, after being denied that chance last year. The fact that it is the first leg decreases the likelihood of unsavoury incidents.
Beyond the off-field concerns surrounding the Superclasico, there will be a football match played on Tuesday, and it is expected a great tactical battle between two coaches who know how to manage these encounters and who tend to take care of even the smallest details.
In 2018, @RiverPlate defeated @BocaJrsOficial to lift the #Libertadores title! Look back at the best moments from a historic day in Madrid!— CONMEBOL Libertadores (@TheLibertadores) October 1, 2019
In 24 hours, the two will clash again in the #Libertadores, this time with a spot in @Santiago2019 on the line! pic.twitter.com/VmpNVs0Veb
A month ago River and Boca contested a prequel in the Superliga, and it produced a pattern of play that will likely be repeated in the first leg. River had the ball for most of the game and Boca sat deep, were well organised and tried to convert on the counter-attack, though they remained primarily focused on defensive duties in a hard-fought goalless draw.
Boca are the Superliga leaders, with a very solid defence protecting a goalkeeper, Esteban Andradra, playing at a high level. However, River are the favourites, not just because of recent history but because of the current makeup of the team.
River's midfield boasts a great blend of experience and youth. When River play well, they are unstoppable, and they proved as much recently in an emphatic 6-1 away victory against reigning Argentine champions Racing.
Coach Marcelo Gallardo has the tendency to spring a surprise but River's approach is clear. The man known as 'El Muneco' has had great success with the 4-4-2 and his team is comfortable playing in that formation.
Enzo Perez is the team's clock, the one that sets the pace and the one that pulls the strings, while Ignacio Fernandez, perhaps the best player in Argentine domestic football, excels at finishing things off.
The question is whether the Uruguayan Nicolas De la Cruz can perform on this stage. He has earned his place in the team through a string of impressive performances and adds a touch of quality and dynamism to a midfield that also features Exequiel Palacios, one of the top prospects in Argentine football. In the attack, with Lucas Pratto only just returning from an injury, the pairing of Rafael Santos Borre and Matias Suarez are expected to start.
Boca coach Gustavo Alfaro was satisfied with the Superliga stalemate and is likely to implement a similar system, with Ramon 'Wanchope' Abila playing as a lone striker in front of a midfield five, in which Ivan Marcone and Nicolas Capaldo will occupy central positions.
Former Benfica winger Eduardo Salvio's recovery from injury will be key for the Xeneize. He will play on the right if fit, if not, his replacement would be Franco Soldano. Emanuel Reynoso is likely to start on the left wing while Alexis Mac Allister should slot in ahead of Marcone and Capaldo. Mauro Zarate would be the favourite to partner Abila should Alfaro elect to go with two strikers.
One other factor to consider will be the weather. The pitch will be heavy due to the heavy rain and strong winds expected throughout Tuesday, though the field at the Monumental typically holds up well in wet conditions.
October is set to be a month defined by highly charged atmospheres in Argentina. The second leg takes place on October 22, five days before presidential elections that will be held amid severe economic difficulties. The hope is that, after the disappointing events of last year, it can be a month of celebration for football and democracy.