Three into two don't go, just as River Plate and Sao Paulo are about to discover as the Copa Libertadores group stage moves toward its climax.
It's an incredible story for River Plate, who by rights shouldn't even have a sniff of emerging from the only group to feature three former champions; 2008 winners LDU, Liga of Quito, being the third.
Argentina were the only one of the 10 South American nations to vote against the plan to restart the Copa Libertadores amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis. It has not been brought under control in much of the continent, and Argentina is being as badly affected now as it has been since the pandemic began. The Argentine league is one of the few yet to restart and the resumption of the Libertadores means its clubs were thrust in action for the first time in six months against opponents from Brazil and Paraguay who had six to eight weeks of competitive matches behind them. Astonishingly, this has not proved to be a significant disadvantage.
Back in March, in the first two weeks of group action, Argentina's five representatives accumulated four wins, two draws and four defeats. Since the resumption they have done significantly better, piling up six wins along with three draws and two defeats. Perhaps the most remarkable result so far was not even a win. It was River Plate's 2-2 draw against Sao Paulo in Brazil. Away to a Sao Paulo side who were close to the top of their domestic league, Gallardo selected three strikers, including talented youngster Julian Alvarez, and two attacking midfielders, and only a pair of own goals stopped his side from coming home with three points instead of one.
River coach Marcelo Gallardo has refused to take advantage of a clause which allow squads to be increased to 50 players. He stuck with his 30, down to 28 with one in the process of being sold and another recovering from the virus. Further down the line it is possible this may mean River have to forfeit if they suffer a mass COVID-19 outbreak, being unable to field a team, but Gallardo's stance is that they should not be playing anyway.
On Wednesday they meet again, and the stakes are high. One of the two slots in the knockout rounds has already been taken by the Ecuadorian side Liga of Quito, who are so dangerous at altitude. The other slot is between River and Sao Paulo, and the Brazilians must win to maintain the faintest hope of going through.
It was Sao Paulo's glamorous team of the early 90s that made Brazilian fans fall in love with the Copa Libertadores. This team is way short of that quality, but they have a fascinating coach. So much so that Fernando Diniz has been lauded by some as the Brazilian Pep Guardiola, due to his playing style. So far, though, his focus on a passing game has been more promise than reality, in results and performances. This is his third time in charge of a first division club, and he left both Athletico Paranaense and Fluminense in the relegation zone. Sao Paulo are currently third in the league but their Libertadores campaign has been poor.
A team with a well organised possession game should have been able to pass the legs off River Plate two weeks ago, but they looked shambolic. And then they lost 4-2 away to Liga of Quito, meaning that even a win on Wednesday will probably end up not being good enough. Sao Paulo would go into the final round on Oct. 20 needing a huge win at home to Binacional of Peru, which should be straightforward enough. The Peruvian champions lost 8-0 and 6-0 to River Plate, and 4-0 to Sao Paulo in the first meeting, and look embarrassingly weak. The problem is that they would need River to lose at home to an already-qualified Liga and overturn a goal difference as high as 10. It would be a miracle escape.
Even so, a win in Argentina over last year's narrowly beaten finalists would be an important result for the pride of the team and the prestige of Diniz, who has to do without suspended striker Luciano, a big success since his recent signing from Gremio, but can welcome back the vastly experienced Dani Alves, out for a few weeks with a fractured forearm. Alves has a key role to play, dictating the rhythm of the team in possession.
Sao Paulo should still enjoy a physical advantage. This, after all, is only River's third game after a six-month break when they could hardly train. In normal circumstances, they would be playing gentle preseason friendlies, not all or nothing ties against dangerous opponents. If Sao Paulo move the ball well, they should be able to bring their quick wingers into play and expose a River defence which can struggle against speed.
River hardly enjoy home advantage, not only because no fans will be present. While work is taking place at their own ground they have moved the match a few miles across Buenos Aires to the stadium of Independiente, who will use the occasion to inaugurate a new lighting system, and illuminate the most fascinating clash since the return of the Copa Libertadores.