River Plate’s relegation 4 years ago sent shockwaves through the general football community. Even casual fans well versed only in European football are well aware of River’s history and relegation seemed to be an unthinkable prospect. However, they’ve bounced back and finally completed their redemptive cycle by winning the Copa Libertadores, says Tom Robinson.
On a wet and windy August night in Buenos Aires, River Plate ran out as 3-0 victors against Tigres to secure a third Libertadores crown and finally complete their redemptive cycle. 4 years ago – 1,501 days to be precise – Los Millonarios suffered relegation; now they stand atop the continent, the only side to have won back-to-back Sudamericana and Libertadores titles.
Neither leg of the final was a classic. During the first in Nuevo Leon, River managed to successfully stifle the profligate Mexicans and walk away with a creditable 0-0 draw, ever so slightly tipping the balance in their favour.
The return tie, in front of a typically boisterous home crowd, was littered with fouls and misplaced passing, not helped by the weather conditions, but River seized the advantage with a Lucas Alario header on the cusp of half time. With star signing Gignac shackled and lively wingers Aquino and Damm only showing flashes, Tigres were unable to find a response and the result was put beyond doubt when Carlos Sanchez scored the decisive second from the penalty spot after he was felled in the box by a soft but clumsy challenge. Ramiro Funes Mori’s third put a gloss on the scoreline that didn’t reflect just how close the two-legged contest had been but nevertheless Gallardo’s men were the more savvy operators over the two fixtures and deservedly walked away with a first Libertadores in 19 years.
Indeed this was the first time in four games that River and Tigres could be separated, as they had previously played out two draws during the group stage. In fact, if it wasn’t for their Mexican counterparts, River might have not made it out of Group 6 at all. While Tigres had romped through the group stage unbeaten, River had massively struggled against minnows San Jose and Juan Aurich and going into the last game had yet to record a single victory. River needed to beat San Jose by two clear goals and hope that Juan Aurich didn’t beat the already qualified Tigres. While River got their 3-0 victory, a topsy-turvy match in Chiclayo swung back and forth with a largely second string Tigres eventually winning 5-4, allowing the grateful Argentines to sneak through in second by the slimmest of margins.
Much like San Lorenzo the year before, who also scraped through the group stage thanks to another game ending 5-4 before then going on to win the tournament, there was a sense of almost inevitable destiny for River after they had stared down the barrel of an early exit and lived to tell the tale. A round of 16 tie against bitter rivals Boca Juniors only strengthened this sentiment further.
With the two due to meet in the league just before, it was all set up for a mouth-watering Superclasico trilogy. As is often the case with the showpiece event of Argentinian football, the spectacle did not live up to its billing and ultimately will be remembered for the infamous second leg in the Bombonera in which River players were attacked with a home-made pepper spray that some so-called fans had thrown into the inflatable tunnel as River were preparing to come out for the second half. CONMEBOL awarded River the victory and they progressed to the quarters.
River’s rollercoaster ride was far from over as they succumbed to a 1-0 defeat to Brasileirao champions Cruzeiro and once again looked to be on the ropes. However, they produced perhaps their tournament defining performance in Belo Horizonte, as Germany had done in the World Cup, to win 3-0 with goals from Carlos Sanchez, Jonathan Maidana and Teo Gutierrez.
The Copa America induced break allowed River to regroup and reinforce ahead of their semi-final clash against surprise package Guarani. The unfancied Paraguayans had not conceded a single goal in four games, knocking out Corinthians and Racing, but if anything the break took the wind out of their sails as they lost 2-0 in the Monumental. A Fernando ‘Queso’ Fernandez goal in the return leg gave them some hope but two of River’s new signings combined to equalise as Alario – who had assisted both goals in the first leg – latched onto Tabare Viudez’s beautifully weighted outside of the boot pass to lob Aguilar and ensure River’s passage to the final.
Tigres too made good use of the transfer window as they brought in the eye-catching signings of Andre-Pierre Gignac from Marseille and Ikechukwu Uche from Villarreal, along with repatriating teammate Javier Aquino and signing highly-rated speed merchant Jurgen Damm from Pachuca. Damm in particular ripped apart Internacional with Bale-esque pace, playing a part in all three goals as Tigres turned around a 2-1 deficit to go through to the final 4-3 on aggregate. However, he was unable to repeat the trick in either game against River and Mexico’s wait for a first Libertadores champion goes on.
For River, this latest piece of silverware represents yet another triumph in the very promising managerial career of Marcelo Gallardo. Though his side may not have played with the verve and swagger that they did during parts of last year, el Muñeco has proven himself a versatile, adaptable and pragmatic manager when needs be, while still maintaining the hard-pressing, dynamic style that characterises his teams. A champion as a player with River in 1996, he can now add yet another title to his growing CV.
Perhaps no player better represents Gallardo’s River as midfielder Carlos Sanchez whose boundless energy drives the side on and without fail always shows up at big moments, as shown again in the final. Other stand outs included ever-present centre back Jonathan Maidana who was a pillar of strength throughout, departing striker Rodrigo Mora who came up with some important goals during the group stage, and young defensive lynchpin Matias Kranevitter who always brought balance and bite to the side and will depart for Atletico Madrid at the end of the year, while striker Alario’s telling contribution will have already written itself into the club’s folklore.
There is no respite for River who travel to Japan to play the Suruga Bank trophy on Tuesday and then return again in December for the Club World Cup for the chance to pit their wits against Barcelona. Before the daunting task of facing the MSN of Messi, Suarez and Neymar though, los Millonarios are still well in contention of adding a league title to their collection as they sit just three points of the top of the Argentinian Primera. Throw in the defence of their Sudamericana crown and there will be plenty more silverware up for grabs for Gallardo’s serial winners.
Written by Tom Robinson