By Roberto Rojas
For the first time in almost two decades, a South American team is looking to repeat as champions of the Copa Libertadores as River Plate face Brazilian side, Flamengo, in the 2019 final on Saturday at 3PM on beIN SPORTS ESPANOL.
The last team to clinch back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles was Boca Juniors between 2000 and 2001. That gives River the chance to both match the feat of their fiercest rivals and also capture a third Libertadores trophy in four years to claim the title as the top South American team of the decade.
It would be an incredible feat for a side that less than a decade ago was playing in the Argentine second division. Since then, River Plate have gone to capture a multitude of local and continental titles and have the chance of winning another under inspirational coach, Marcelo Gallardo.
The Gallardo Effect
There is no doubt that the effect that Marcelo Gallardo has had at River Plate will forever be remembered by fans.
In 2014, a then 38-year-old Gallardo arriving with the confidence of bringing change, claimed during his introductory press conference that “River will reclaim its history.”
Despite not winning a Libertadores title since 1996, the club was convinced that something special could happen and serious change could be implemented by the man with a laid-back and easygoing relationship with his players. The Argentine certainly hasn’t failed in keeping his word.
Ten titles in five years saw “El Muñeco” go from “the little doll” to “Napoleon” due to his leadership attributes.
Having become South American Coach of the Year in 2018, receiving praise from Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola with both believing the Argentine should have been on FIFA’s shortlist for best manager in the world, it seems inevitable that Gallardo will soon leave Buenos Aires for a new challenge. Reports have tied Gallardo to Barcelona and MLS. Those reports will intensify should he lead River Plate to another Copa Libertadores title.
Maintaining The Core
River Plate’s greatest achievement came even before the defense of their Copa Libertadores title had begun when the club was able to hold on the majority of the team that defeated Boca Juniors in Madrid. Indeed, that core was strengthened.
With the exception of the player that scored the final goal in Madrid, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, who moved to Atlanta United, key players such as goalkeeper Franco Armani, Exequiel Palacios, Lucas Pratto, Enzo Perez, Nicolás de la Cruz, Milton Casco stayed at River. Matias Suarez and Robert Rojas were brought in to strengthen the squad’s depth.
At a time when South American teams are producing young talent to then sell to Europe to ease financial pressures, it was an incredible sign to see the reigning Libertadores champions maintain their nucleus to defend their title.
🛫 ¡Del Monumental a Lima! 🛬— River Plate (@RiverPlate) November 21, 2019
Mirá cómo fue el viaje del plantel rumbo a la ciudad donde jugará una nueva final de Copa Libertadores ▶️ pic.twitter.com/BFY2XBjon7
The Ones To Watch
Gallardo’s team will be looking to rely on the same players that not only won them the 2018 final but have been influential throughout the 2019 Copa Libertadores competition.
Pratto will be the target man up front with de La Cruz, and Rafael Santos Borré also providing danger on the attack, Gallardo will be looking to these players as well as the experience of Enzo Perez – who is recovering from injury - Javier Pinola and captain Leonardo Ponzio.
The other doubt will be the effect of Juan Fernando Quintero, who has recently returned to the team following an ACL injury. The diminutive attacking-midfielder might be the super sub in Santiago and help lead River Plate to back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles and make some South American history.