At the weekend River Plate and Lanus fielded reserve sides in their Argentine league games. Both lost 4-0, but they were happy to keep their stars fresh for this crunch meeting in the Copa Libertadores, South America's version of the Champions League. And what a night it turned out to be.
In last Tuesday's first semifinal leg, River Plate won by the only goal. Their victory was twofold. First, the obvious -- they were ahead at the halfway stage. Second, they had denied Lanus an away goal. Coach Marcelo Gallardo had thought long and hard about dealing with his opponent's flowing 4-3-3 formation. He concentrated on forcing Lanus wingers Alejandro Silva and Lautaro Acosta back into their own half, isolating veteran centre-forward Jose Sand.
The second leg, in Lanus' stadium, would be different. In front of their own fans and behind on the scoreboard, Lanus came out to play, pushing high up the field. They soon hit their rhythm, and could have leveled the aggregate score from a corner, headed narrowly wide by left-back Maxi Velasquez.
Lanus, though, were taking a clear gamble. High up the field, they ran the risk of exposing their lack of defensive pace -- and they paid the price after 15 minutes. River attacking midfielder Nacho Fernandez ghosted in behind their lines. Caught on the wrong side, centre-back Diego Braghieri made a rash challenge, Fernandez fell to the ground and Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan pointed the spot. Ignacio Scocco emphatically scored from the penalty.
River had an away goal, meaning that Lanus now had to score three times -- which quickly became four. Again it was soft. A needless foul gave River a free kick in one of those positions that's a nightmare for the goalkeeper, when the ball is fired across in search of a header but can also go straight into the goal. Gonzalo Martinez whipped in at pace, Jonathan Maidana may have got the slightest touch -- but he certainly got in the way of keeper Esteban Andrada, who could only palm the ball out for young River right-back Gonzalo Montiel to head his side two goals ahead on the night and three on aggregate.
The Lanus crowd, so passionately noisy before the kickoff, were now deflated. Their team looked to be treading through treacle. To have any hope of staying in the contest, Lanus needed a goal before the interval -- and, in the best, free-flowing style of their team, they got one in stoppage time. A ball in from the right was delightfully laid off by Acosta for Sand to blast through keeper German Lux at his near post.
Forty-one seconds after the restart, they had another, Sand combining with Acosta and Roman Martinez before firing home left-footed. Coach Jorge Almiron's team, who have played plenty of bright, attractive football over the past couple of years, were not going down without a fight. They were now two goals from achieving the dream of reaching their first Libertadores final. River, who won the third of their titles two years ago, had to rethink.
The next goal would be vital, either adding momentum to the Lanus charge, or setting the bar impossibly high.
River went on the attack, bringing on Carlos Auzqui for the more defensively minded midfielder Enzo Perez. But it was Lanus who struck, with another delightful piece of combination play. Martinez fed Sand on the right wing. He rolled River centre-back Javier Pinola and played low into the box, where Silva received, turned and crossed for Acosta to slip in from close range. Half an hour remained. And the drama was only starting.
Did Lanus have a penalty? Was Nicholas Pasquini pushed in the area by Montiel? And was Pasquini onside? The video official, being used for the first time in South American football, came to Roldan's aid. After consulting the images, the answer to all three questions was "yes." Silva stepped up and calmly slotted home from the spot, and for the first time in the tie, Lanus were ahead.
What were River made of? They had more than 20 minutes to react. A corner from the left was met by a half volley from Pinola that grazed the far post. Another corner was cleared as far as Leonardo Ponzio on the edge of the box. His fierce shot came through a crowd of players. Lanus keeper Andrada did well to see it, let alone plunge left to block it -- and this was the moment that seemed to break the heart of River Plate.
A mixture of frustration and petulance saw Fernandez pick up a second yellow card. River were down to 10 men. All of them, including keeper Lux, were up in the Lanus penalty area trying to force home a corner. In the fifth and final minute of stoppage time the ball was pinging ominously in front of the goal. But Lanus hung on to register a wonderful comeback, 4-2 on the night to advance 4-3 on aggregate, in a terrific show of Libertadores action.
It is highly unlikely the other semifinal will produce anything so dramatic. First, because Gremio of Brazil won last week's first leg 3-0 away to Barcelona of Ecuador. Second, because Barcelona's journey down to Porto Alegre has proved a logistical nightmare. They had planned a short refueling stop in Bolivia, but problems with their documentation meant that their flight could not take off. The Ecuadorian military had to hurriedly send them a plane to ensure their arrival in time for a match that will need a comeback even more impressive than that of Lanus if they are to prevent a final between clubs from Argentina and Brazil.