With the qualifying rounds of South America's Copa Libertadores now complete, 32 teams are ready to go into Friday's draw. Almost half of them are from just two of the continent's ten footballing nations: Argentina has six representatives, Brazil has eight.
With the last three winners, and all of the finalists in 2020 and 2021, Brazil has taken command of a competition that the Argentines used to think of almost as a birthright. It is not easy to find opponents who might give the top Brazilians a game this year, but the best bets would seem to be the Buenos Aires pair of River Plate and Boca Juniors.
Their meeting on Sunday, then, was a match whose importance goes beyond the borders of Argentina, especially as it came in the early stages of the domestic campaign.
On the one hand, there was not much at stake as both sides could afford to lose. On the other, there was plenty -- the importance of this clash sets the tone for the start of their Libertadores quest in just over two weeks' time. And so it is Boca who come away ecstatic after a 1-0 win on enemy territory, with not a friend in sight. Away fans are banned in Argentine football, so the Boca players had to celebrate alone when the final whistle blew on a match that does much to consolidate the position of their coach Sebastian Battaglia.
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River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo is more than consolidated. Already a club idol as an attacking midfielder, he has been in charge for an astonishing period of nearly eight years. Battaglia, too, is an idol. He was metronome in the midfield of a triumphant Boca at the start of the century and now a coach he is finding his feet. Winning at River does much for his credibility. The game was always going to be a clash of styles, and Sunday's match went his way.
Gallardo's River are expansive, intoxicating, attacking in waves and moving the ball at pace. Battaglia's Boca are cut from different cloth. They are more pragmatic, less eye catching. They found their mojo the previous weekend in a 1-0 win over an abrasive Estudiantes team. Boca wore yellow shirts that day, instead of the traditional blue and yellow, and stuck with the strip for the River match.
But this latest triumph had more to do with planning than with superstition. The game could have turned out otherwise. Like any match, this version of the Buenos Aires derby had many other potential matches inside it. There are always "what if?" moments. Had Boca gone behind then the plan would have needed a change. But they reduced their chances of conceding with a sound approach: Battaglia set up Boca to mark aggressively. The defensive line pushed up, and midfield was congested. The idea was to stop River's passing moves at source, to break the connection between attacking midfielders Ezequiel Barco and Nicolas De La Cruz and star striker Julian Alvarez.
It worked. River never found their rhythm. They were stifled through the middle and Gallardo may be concerned that he did not get enough from his full-backs, important suppliers of attacking width in these situations. River were restricted. Alvarez whistled one shot over from a Barco pass, Barco had a shot saved from the edge of the area and a glorious Alvarez solo burst ended when his left foot shot was saved by Augustin Rossi. Snapping into the tackles meant that Boca were picking up cards. Peruvian right-back Luis Advincula was on the verge of a red, and was replaced at half-time by Nico Figal, once of Inter Miami.
But it was another ex-Inter Miami defender who inadvertently decided the course of the game. Centre-back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez is one of the reinforcements aimed at stiffening the River Plate defence. But there has still been an air of vulnerability this year -- confirmed soon after the interval, when he tried to shepherd the ball back to keeper Franco Armani. It was a mistake. Armani was too far away, gesturing for the ball to be cleared. And while Gonzalez Pirez played the sleeping shepherd, Boca winger Sebastian Villa played the wolf. The clash between Villa -- as quick and strong as a steeplechase horse -- and the River defence always looked interesting. In the event, Villa had few chances to shine. But he took this one, rushing in to steal the ball and hook it past the keeper.
River still had some 40 minutes to look for an equaliser, and rang the attacking changes. But they made little impression, though Rossi had to make another couple of saves, blocking from Alvarez are a rare fluent passing move, and tipping over a running header from substitute Agustin Palavecino. And as the game wore on, the Boca counter-attack looked increasingly dangerous.
Boca Juniors, then, have a template to take into the crunch games of the Libertadores. River Plate, meanwhile, may fret about their capacity both to play through and defend against the best Brazilian teams. This was not a classic River vs. Boca. But it had drama, and it has whetted the appetite nicely for the next version of South America's Champions League.