By Roberto Rojas - beIN SPORTS
In the recent history of the Copa Libertadores, there have always been teams that have demonstrated their force by creating dynasties in the competition.
In the 1990s, there was the great São Paulo side under head coach Tele Santana that went to three straight finals, winning back-to-back in 1992 and 1993. A decade later, Boca Juniors were the dominant team not just of Argentina, but all of South America. Under head coach Carlos Bianchi, Boca captured three Libertadores titles.
As we approach the end of the 2010s, there is no question that one team has dominated the continental internationally. Ironically, that honor goes to a side that has only been back in the top flight of its domestic league for less than a decade: River Plate of Argentina.
As Los Millonarios prepare for their third consecutive Libertadores semifinal, facing off against their bitter rivals Boca Juniors, we take a look back on how one of the world’s most recognizable clubs turned it around in a span of a decade.
Silver Lining After Darkness
One of the biggest clubs not only in Argentina and South America, River are also world-renowned for their history and for the players they have produced to later dominate in Europe and internationally. Complicating that history? They haven’t even been in the first division of their national league for the entirety of the past decade.
In 2011, River Plate were relegated to the second division for the first time in their history after losing a two-leg playoff against Belgrano. The relegation sent shock waves across the football world, much to the delight of many Boca fans who still use it to mock River fans and chants about it to this day.
Los Millonarios bounced back up a year later, and in 2014 hired former River Plate player Marcelo Gallardo as their head coach. El “Muñeco” (The Doll) would end up revolutionizing the club.
Gallardo led the Buenos Aires-based side to a Copa Sudamericana title in his first year before going a step further and winning the Libertadores in 2015. Gallardo’s first Libertadores title as a manager (and second overall after winning one as a player) was the club’s third Libertadores title, but first in 19 years. It was a culmination of River’s redemption after the depths of 2011.
Since then, Gallardo has implemented a pragmatic style of play with River and won another eight titles in his five years at the club, including the 2018 Libertadores, won in Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu against their bitter rivals Boca Juniors.
In less than a decade, Gallardo has already cemented his place as the most successful coach in River Plate's history. Despite offers from both clubs afar in Europe and the Argentine national team at home, he has stayed put, hoping to create a dynasty not seen in Argentina and in South America for a long time.
2019 Group Stage
At the outset of the 2019 Libertadores, River were drawn in a group with Internacional of Brazil, Palestino of Chile and Alianza Lima of Peru. Despite being tipped as pre-tournament favorites, River’s journey through the group stage did not start off easy.
The defending champions split the points in all three their first group games. With the exception of a 0-0 behind closed doors at El Monumental, River had to come from behind in both their matches away in Peru and Brazil, with the former coming from a last-minute equalizer by Cristian Ferreira.
Midway through the group there was a real possibility brewing that if results didn’t go their way, River could bounce out of the Libertadores with a majority of the same players that had made up the title-winning side the year prior.
Instead, they turned it around and got two wins and one draw in their last three matches, allowing them to finish second in their group with 10 points, four behind Internacional, and qualify to the Round of 16.
2019 Round of 16
Being ranked 10th overall out of the 16 qualified sides, River were placed in Pot 2 in the knockout stage draw which eventually led them to be drawn against Brazilian side Cruzeiro, who ranked second overall and had only lost one match during their group stage campaign.
In a poor first leg at home in Buenos Aires, River nearly snatched a win in the last minute when they were awarded a penalty. Unfortunately for Los Millonarios, Matias Suarez skied his shot and the match finished in a 0-0 draw.
After another 90 scoreless minutes in Belo Horizonte, the series had to be decided via a penalty shootout in the second leg. River goalkeeper Franco Armani proved decisive, saving two penalties from Cruziero’s Henrique and David, as River qualified to the quarterfinals to take on Paraguayan outfit Cerro Porteño.
Cerro Porteño had qualified to the quarterfinals after beating Argentine side San Lorenzo 2-1 in both legs to set up a tight series against the defending champions.
In a chippy first leg that endured some controversy from Peruvian referee Victor Carrillo, River Plate came out as victors. Penalties converted by Ignacio Fernández and Rafael Santos Borré put the Argentines in pole position for the second leg and a spot in the semifinals.
At a packed La Nueva Olla in Asuncion the following week, Cerro Porteño scored early on but a rally never fully materialized for the Paraguayans. River’s Uruguayan youngster Nicolás De La Cruz scored 30 minutes from time to end the second leg at 1-1 and help River qualify to the semifinals, 3-1 on aggregate.
What to Watch vs. Boca
For the third time in five years, a Superclasico will be played in the Libertadores and this time, it’s for a spot in the one-off grand final in Santiago against the winner of the all-Brazilian semifinal tie between Flamengo and Gremio.
While last year’s final will be remembered especially for its controversy, a Libertadores Superclasico matchup has always caused controversy in the past. In 2015, the second leg of a Round of 16 Superclasico tie was suspended after Boca fans attacked River Plate players with pepper spray as they came out of halftime. CONMEBOL suspended Boca from the tournament, while River advanced and went on to lift the trophy.
Ten months on from last year’s final and not much has changed from the River side that won.
Los Millonarios are anchored by goalkeeper Franco Armani (five clean sheets in eight matches played); the midfield boasts top assist provider Ignacio Fernandez, European-based experience from Enzo Perez as well the seniority of captain Leonardo Ponzio (won both Libertadores under Gallardo); along the forward line they have the firepower of Nicolas De La Cruz (top goalscorer) and Lucas Pratto.
With that collection of talent and their recent history of success, River come in as favorites for this latest semifinal clash, but in a match as intense and open as a Superclasico in the Libertadores, pre-match favoritism means little.