It might look as if it is all over but neither Palmeiras of Brazil nor River Plate of Argentina will be taking anything for granted in Tuesday’s next second leg of the Copa Libertadores semifinal.
Palmeiras scored a famous 3-0 victory away at River Plate last week, and they will aim to defend that big lead in Sao Paulo. River coach Marcelo Gallardo is well aware that his team need an epic night if they are to play their way back into the tie. But he and his men will take some comfort from the semifinal of two years ago, when River lost at home to Gremio of Brazil but saved themselves with a dramatic away win. Palmeiras, too, have memories of a meeting with Gremio, in this case in the 2019 quarterfinals. Palmeiras won away, only to be knocked out after losing at home.
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In the course of the last two campaigns, then, River Plate have wriggled out of a tight spot in Brazil, while Palmeiras have thrown away an advantage at home. Both times, though, the margin of victory in the first leg was 1-0. If River are to claw back a three-goal deficit then everything has to go right for them — an early goal to jangle the home nerves, for example — and something has to go badly wrong for Palmeiras, such as a first-half red card.
It is a tribute to the quality shown by both sides last week that something special cannot be completely ruled out. Palmeiras effectively won the first leg just after half-time with a superb solo goal by centre-forward Luiz Adriano. It is not clear how River can defend against him, and the rapid Palmeiras wingers, while also chasing goals. But if they can get the better of the Brazilian attack then there is no shortage of firepower and attacking options that Gallardo can deploy. River could comfortably have scored two or three in last week’s first half. At their best they move the ball irresistibly, and if the parts click and they find their fluency there may yet be some tension in the occasion.
There will be plenty of tension on Wednesday in the second semifinal, but will there be any quality? Last week’s goalless draw between Boca Juniors of Argentina and Santos of Brazil was a very disappointing affair. As former Argentina centre-forward and footballing philosopher Jorge Valdano pointed out: “I’m happy there was no crowd in the stadium. What was there to see? There was not a single drop of adventure and creativity. The two goals seemed like unreachable castles, as if the two teams were afraid to attack them for fear of falling in the moat.”
Some of the caution may be a consequence of the away goals rule. Boca were at least as concerned with not conceding as they were with scoring. Not letting in a goal at home means, of course, that the score draw is theirs. If they score one, Santos need two.
Carlos Tevez has happy memories of grabbing the only goal on Boca’s last visit to Brazil, a month ago against Internacional. If he and wingers Sebastian Villa and Eduardo Salvio can reproduce the form they displayed that day, then an all-Brazilian final on Jan. 30 may be avoided.
At least Argentina can be confident of its chances in the second string competition, the Copa Sudamericana. The country provides three of the final four teams, so there is the guarantee of one Argentine finalist on Jan. 23. Lanus are favourites after last week’s 1-0 win away to Velez Sarsfield. Now coached by Mauricio Pellegrino, Velez will look for strong performances on Wednesday from the youngsters developed by former coach, now Atlanta United boss Gabriel Heinze. The most promising is attacking midfielder Thiago Almada, who was only fit for the last 20 minutes last week, and made a big impact as soon as he came on.
The other semifinal has yet to play its first leg. Coquimbo of Chile were supposed to have hosted Argentina’s Defensa y Justicia in Santiago on Thursday. But three visiting players tested positive for coronavirus, and the Chilean authorities wanted to impose a quarantine on the entire delegation. The first leg was switched, then, to Paraguay on Tuesday, with the return game in Argentina on Saturday. Unfortunate and blameless Coquimbo have lost any kind of home advantage, which should boost the chances of Hernan Crespo’s Defensa y Justicia making it an all-Argentine final.