The Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League, very nearly lost two powerful story lines on Wednesday night. For the time being, though, two dreams of Argentine giants Boca Juniors are still alive.
One is the hope of meeting their great rivals River Plate in the final. Two years ago, they lost the biggest clash in the history of their intense rivalry in the final of the Libertadores that was controversially taken to Spain. The bragging rights they lost in Madrid they hope to regain in the Maracana, the famous Rio de Janeiro stadium where the next final will take place at the end of January.
The other is the quest of winning the title in honour of the recently deceased Diego Maradona — a mission which is especially important in the mind of Carlos Tevez, who had Maradona as a close personal friend.
Tevez did a great deal to get Boca Juniors into the quarterfinals of this year’s competition when he scored the only goal of last week’s first leg away to Internacional of Brazil, but it was a match which both teams could look on with regret.
— Marcotti: Maradona soccer’s ultimate flawed genius
Inter have recently undergone a change of coach, with the Argentine Eduardo Coudet taking a job in Spain. His replacement, the veteran Abel Braga, has not had an easy start, and he made a mess of his selection for the home game against Boca. He went with two strikers with a playmaker behind. His midfield were slow, outnumbered and played narrow, allowing the Boca wingers to run riot. If Inter could have the first leg again they would have chosen a different side, and if Boca could have it again they would surely have worked harder to turn their domination into a wider margin of victory. They could have killed off the tie in Porto Alegre.
Even so, after six consecutive clean sheets they were confident of completing the task in Buenos Aires. This time, though, Inter strung five across the midfield and imposed themselves on the game.
There was a touch of controversy. Inter left-back Moises could, and probably should, have been sent off in the first five minutes. He was already on a yellow card when he made a rough challenge on Tevez — the type that often brings straight red cards, and indeed did for Boca substitute Agustin Obando in the closing stages. Moises, however, escaped unpunished. Braga must have considered taking him off, but his surging power down the left was a key part of Inter’s game plan.
Time and time again Moises combined with splendid midfielder Patrick to cause problems down the flank. Inter were well worth a half-time lead, but had to wait until just after the restart to break the deadlock and drew level on aggregate. Patrick freed Moises, and his low cross behind the defensive line was turned into his own goal by rival left-back Frank Fabra.
Another goal would have put Inter firmly in the driving seat, but it proved hard for them to maintain their intensity, and Boca at last started to enjoy some controlled possession. There were, though, few clear chances at either end and the game began an inevitable drift towards a penalty shootout.
Tevez stepped up first and got lucky. He struck his shot down the middle in the expectation that keeper Marcelo Lomba would move. Lomba stayed put, got two hands to the ball but could not keep it out. But Boca’s next penalty taker, the Colombian set piece specialist Edwin Cardona, hit weakly to Lomba’s left and saw his shot saved.
Inter went 2-1 in the lead. At this point it looked all over for the Maradona quest and the dream of facing River with the title at stake. Instead, there seemed to be much more possibility of Brazil’s fiercest derby, the Porto Alegre clash of Inter and Gremio, in the semifinals. The two met in the group stage where, in the last game before the coronavirus shutdown, they played out a goalless draw in a match where eight players were sent off. Providing Inter held their nerve, then they would join Gremio in the quarterfinals, where they would meet if both came through.
But Inter could not hold their nerve. The penalty in the top corner has the greatest risk/reward relationship. Struck correctly, no keeper can make a save. But a minor miscalculation can send the ball too high, and the stress of pressure makes such an error more likely.
It was close — far closer than most had expected — but the Libertadores dream of Boca Juniors is still alive and, as they move on to face compatriots Racing in the quarterfinals, is one round closer to coming true.