Just under 10 months after the last attempt ended in mortifying, acrimonious circumstances, Tuesday will see River Plate and Boca Juniors finally lock horns once again at the Monumental for a decisive Copa Libertadores tie. The historic bad blood between the two giants has only been soured further by the events of last year’s final, meaning that the upcoming semi-final is bound to be the tensest of affairs. Such is the anticipation that even though both sides are active today in the Superliga, those matches are barely a sideshow compared to the main event taking place in just a few short days.
That infamous last clash last year, November 24’s scheduled second leg, of course, proved impossible to stage. With the final – the last, perhaps fittingly, to be played over two matches (2019 will be decided in a single clash that takes place Santiago, Chile) – finely poised after the first 90 minutes, a 2-2 draw in La Bombonera, Boca’s bus was ambushed just metres from the gates of River’s home. A hail of bottles, stones and other missiles rained down on the vehicle, an incident that caused Buenos Aires City’s security minister to resign his post and the game itself to be moved controversially out of South America entirely.
In a fantastical twist one of the most anticipated finals in the continent’s football history was hosted in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium. The rest of course is history: Darío Benedetto’s opener, River’s roaring comeback via Lucas Pratto and Juan Fernando Quintero, the despair of Esteban Andrada in the Millonario penalty area as Pity Martínez hared towards the empty opposite net.
This latest tie, needless to say, opens a fresh chapter in this ancient rivalry. To start, of the four goalscorers in that deciding leg only Pratto is likely to feature on Tuesday, with Benedetto and Martínez subsequently sold and Quintero still recovering from a harrowing ligament rupture at the start of 2019. Gone too is Guillermo Barros Schelotto, for many the architect of Boca’s defeat from the bench; in his place is the wily old pragmatist Gustavo Alfaro, whose lack of previous standing with the Bombonera faithful has thus far been compensated by his knack of grinding out victories with seemingly minimal effort.
Alfaro’s Boca nullified and frustrated River the last time the pair met in the Monumental, with the hosts huffing and puffing but ultimately failing to blow down the brick wall constructed around Andrada and the Xeneize net. A repeat of that 0-0 scoreline would surely be, if not openly celebrated, then at the very least welcomed around La Boca, while leaving plenty of margin for anxiety in the River camp going into the return match on October 22.
Boca will clearly be hoping to hit back following that devastating final defeat in Madrid, which prompted extended bouts of soul-searching and no little public washing of dirty linens across the club, from the dressing-room to the boardroom. River, meanwhile, insist that there is no comparison with that notorious match, preferring to look back to 2004, the last semi-final involving both teams and Carlos Tevez’s infamous ‘Chicken dance’ in front of a furious Monumental.
Neutrals will only hope there is no repeat of those horrendous scenes of November 2018, and that the game will take place in an atmosphere that stays on the right side of that paper-thin line between passion and criminal violence.
What is clear is that all involved enter a decisive three weeks, which will have implications that go far beyond merely deciding the identity of the Argentine participant in this year’s Libertadores showpiece.