Monday 10 December 2018, 19:38

River run out worthy winners after challenging Libertadores campaign

  • River Plate win fourth Copa Libertadores crown

  • Campaign concludes with all-Argentinian final against Boca Juniors

  • River qualify for second FIFA Club World Cup

River Plate could not have dreamed of a better 2018 Copa Libertadores campaign, as they eventually outlasted great rivals Boca Juniors at the culmination of an epic tournament that had already been heralded – due to the high presence of former champions – as one of the best in recent memory.

The prize for the newly crowned continental champions is a return to the FIFA Club World Cup, and to the United Arab Emirates, where they finished as runners-up in 2015. Los Millonarios have claimed a global crown once before, in 1986, back in the days of the Intercontinental Cup, and will be hopeful of adding to their impressive list of honours.

Unforgettable victory For River Plate’s players and fans, claiming the South American title while beating Boca Juniors, their eternal rivals, is a memorable achievement that is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

But the road to that two-legged triumph was extremely hard-going and somewhat unusual. They emerged from the group stage, during which they locked horns with Flamengo, Independiente Santa Fe and Emelec, with an unbeaten record. From then onwards, they grew from strength to strength, eliminating former South American champions in every round that followed.

In the last 16, River disposed of fellow Argentinians Racing, in the quarter-finals they defeated the other major Avellaneda-based club, Independiente – who boast seven Libertadores titles, a record – and in the semi-finals they got the better of Brazilian heavyweights Gremio, although they left it late, having been in a losing position with ten minutes to go.

In the final, they trailed three times: twice in La Bombonera (the first leg finished 2-2) and once during the second leg, which was held at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. In the end, they dug deep to win 3-1 in extra time, and lift the continental trophy for the fourth time.

Path to glory

  • 14 matches played

  • Seven wins, six draws and one defeat

  • 19 goals scored (1.35 per match) and nine conceded

Key man For playing a decisive role in a number of important matches, Lucas Pratto has earned the right to be regarded as a crucial cog in a River Plate machine whose principal asset is collective strength.

The bustling front man arrived at the club at the turn of the year, after being transferred from Sao Paulo in a record-breaking deal. It took him a few months to adapt, but he began to truly find his form once the group phase was done and dusted.

The robust 30-year-old’s attacking prowess and eye for goal were on full display during the knockout stages: he notched the opening goal against Racing in the second leg of the Round of 16, put in a great performance as River turned around their semi-final with Gremio, and scored in each leg of the final versus Boca, equalising on both occasions.

Guiding hand There is no doubt that River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo was instrumental in his charges’ Copa Libertadores success. The former Monaco star was able to rebuild his team to face the challenges of 2018, after suffering a painful reverse in the semi-finals of the 2017 edition of the competition, when his players gave up a three-goal aggregate lead in 40-odd minutes and were knocked out by Lanus.

He made some judicious decisions as regards squad reinforcement, enhancing its performance levels by bringing in – in addition to Pratto – goalkeeper Franco Armani, who recorded seven clean sheets, Rafael Santos Borre, who put away crucial goals against Independiente and Gremio, and Juan Fernando Quintero, whose talent was clear for all to see throughout the tournament, particularly during the final.

In addition, Gallardo made several tactical decisions that helped River find a way past their opponents’ defences, sent on substitutes that changed the course of matches, and succeeded in imparting one of his trademark characteristics to his players: incredible mental fortitude.

What they said “River were the best team throughout the Copa Libertadores. We came up against the toughest possible opponents, but we were up to the task. In the semi-finals, we knocked out the defending champions and in the final, against our local rivals, we were the better team in both matches.” River Plate assistant coach Matias Biscay, who filled in for the suspended Marcelo Gallardo in the second leg of the semi-final and in both legs of the final.

Did you know?

  • River now have seven players on their books who have two Copa Libertadores titles to their name: Jonatan Maidana, Franco Armani, Enzo Perez, Leonardo Ponzio, Gonzalo Martinez, Camilo Mayada and Rodrigo Mora.

  • River had lost on the two previous occasions they had played a Copa Libertadores final at a neutral venue – versus Penarol in 1966 and against Cruzeiro in 1976 (both were held in Santiago, in Chile).

  • Los Millonarios had not fought back to defeat Boca in a derby for 31 years. That comeback victory came in 1987; they were 2-0 down at home, but eventually won 3-2.