The 61st version of the Copa Libertadores reaches a conclusion rich in potential storylines. Ten countries from across South America sent representatives into the action -- and it has all boiled down to an affair between the two giants from Buenos Aires and two powerhouses from the state of Sao Paulo, with the places in the final defined in two-legged semifinals over the next two weeks.
Might there be another epic final between the old Argentine rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors? Or an all-Brazilian clash between Santos and Palmeiras in Rio's Maracana stadium on January 30th? Can Boca first get past Santos -- Pele's old club -- to possibly then gain revenge for the 2018 championship defeat to River Plate, all while paying tribute to Diego Maradona?
River Plate-Palmeiras, the strongest semi
First up, on Tuesday night, is the clash between the best two teams in the competition so far. River Plate against Palmeiras would have made a worthy final. Instead we have a helping, first in Argentina and in Brazil next week, between sides who have averaged around three goals a game on their route to the last four. In a reign that's nearly reached seven years -- amazing longevity in current South American football -- River coach Marcelo Gallardo has grown accustomed to being in there at the business end of the tournament.
Winners in 2015 and 2018, narrowly beaten finalists last year, this is River's fourth consecutive semi, and fifth in six years. Gallardo has them playing expansive, attractive football which is an essential part of the club's identity. He has a number of tactical systems up his sleeve, but however they line up, River look to make the ball fizz and use the full width of the pitch.
Los Millionarios are rich with attacking options; Matias Suarez works the flanks well, with Colombian striker Rafael Santos Borre a specialist in getting behind the opposing defence. Another Colombian, Jorge Carrascal, is full of talent while young striker Julian Alvarez looks a real thoroughbred. And there is the right foot-left foot combination of attacking midfielders Nico De La Cruz and Nacho Fernandez to set up the play, plus attacking right back Gonzalo Montiel, often sprung into action by a long crossfield pass. The doubts are at the other end. At the end of 2019 River appeared to have the final against Flamengo of Brazil in the bag, only for the defence to collapse in the last five minutes.
Palmeiras will now come at them with more attacking pace and skill then they have faced in the previous knockout rounds. Coached by the Portuguese Abel Ferreira, the Brazilians can fire on the counter-attack with the speed of wingers Rony and, if fit, young revelation Gabriel Veron. Centre-forward Luiz Adriano, now recovered from injury, and play back to goal or be launched behind the defensive line, and on the left there is the option of Gustavo Scarpa to use the space behind Montiel, drift infield and shoot at goal. And, well marshalled by the Paraguayan Gustavo Gomez, Palmeiras would seem to have the tighter defence.
They have racked up the goals -- 29 in 10 games. But where River have conceded nine, Palmeiras have only let in four. Both sides have 100% home records, and it will be very interesting to see how much River push to make the most of home advantage -- although, with their stadium getting an overhaul they are using the ground of Independiente. If need be, Gallardo's men will believe in their capacity to win in Sao Paulo next week. There may be a temptation to take a more cautious approach and lessen the risk of Palmeiras picking up away goals on the counter attack. One thing can be guaranteed -- Gallardo will have a special plan for the occasion.
Boca-Santos a showcase of clubs of Pele, Maradona
Bizarrely, supporters of Boca Juniors will find themselves at least half hoping that Gallardo finds the answers and River come out on top. They want to win their first title since 2007. But the dream will not be complete unless the victory lap takes place around a defeated River team. Unless this happens, December 9th 2018, when River beat Boca in that controversial final held in Madrid, will continue to be a date that is hurled at them.
Boca's hopes are pinned on Carlos Tevez -- and not just because of his personal relationship with Maradona. A year ago Tevez appeared to be all washed up. But coach Miguel Angel Russo, who took the club to that title in 2007, returned and has made all the difference. He is aware that Tevez is the kind of player who needs to feel important. Ruso, then, has built the attack around him, and Tevez has responded well. The team functions best when he can work behind a centre-forward, probably Ramon Abila in Wednesday's first leg, pushing the defence deeper and opening up space for him.
Boca are strong down the flanks. On the left havoc can be caused by the Colombian duo of rampaging full-back Frank Fabra and the awesomely strong right footed winger Sebastian Villa. On the other side the threat comes from the subtle skills of Eduardo Salvio, so adept at timing his runs into the box. They look to hold things tight through the middle, where news of a possible injury to midfielder Jorman Campuzano is a concern,and the defence, with just three goals conceded, is the best in the competition. Santos should surely seek to test that defence in Buenos Aires on Wednesday night.
In 2018, in his previous spell in charge, coach Cica took Santos to Argentina to face Independiente with, on paper, a powerful front three. His side failed to muster a single shot at goal, on or off target. Something bolder would be better this time -- especially because courage has been a key factor in the side reaching the last four. The other three teams have become regular semifinalists. This is the first time Santos have got so far since 2012 -- and no one expected them to do it this time. The club have gone through coaching changes, injury crises, coronavirus outbreaks -- and they are broke. The president was impeached and the club banned by FIFA from making new signings. It forced them to go with youth -- and in the current century, this has been a club speciality.
Santos is a port town some 60 miles down the hill from Sao Paulo metropolis. The city has a population well under half a million -- which makes the club one of the most astounding stories in the history of football. In the days of Pele, they had a claim to be considered the best team in the world and won the Libertadores twice in 1962 and 1963. Afterwards they inevitably slipped back, only to re-capture contential glory in 2011 behind the play of Neymar.
But successive waves of youngsters have put the O Peixe back on the map. Cuca lines up the team with two wingers. Marinho on the right cuts in to unleash his left footed missiles, the tiny Venezuelan Yefferson Soteldo normally plays on the right, tormenting defenders with his dribbling. In between is Kaio Jorge, a centre-forward with a touch of Roberto Firmino about him. The 18-year-old can operate in the penalty area, but can also drop back and mark, allowing the wingers to stay high and slipping through clever passes.
The midfield trio, in which Sandry, another teenager, has suddenly emerged, like to press aggressively -- which they can do safely in the knowledge that behind them Lucas Verissimo is one of the best centre-backs in South America. But he will not be in Brazil for long as Portuguese power Benfica are working on a deal for him. Verissimo had to be coaxed onto the field in the quarterfinal, and there is no guarantee that he will be around for both legs of the semi.
This, then, is another obstacle placed in the path of Santos. They have stepped over all the others so far. Can they do it again and do their bit to prevent a Boca-River final? In knock out matches in the current continental competitions, Argentina are beating Brazil by the alarming margin of 7-1. Clubs from Argentina have eliminated three Brazilians in the Libertadores, and four in the Sudamericana, where Brazil have had their only success -- so far. But now the real bouts starts.