Carlos Tevez did not disappoint. When Boca Juniors took the field away to Internacional of Brazil in the Copa Libertadores last Wednesday, all eyes were on Tevez in the expectation that he would come up with something to pay tribute to his friend and idol Diego Maradona.
The only goal of the game was scored by the 36-year-old, spinning sharply to coax a shot past the keeper. He celebrated by taking off his Boca Juniors No. 10 shirt to reveal another Boca Juniors No. 10 shirt, this one worn by Maradona in a brief but triumphant spell with the club back in 1981.
The shirt was a present to Tevez from Maradona. Tevez had it framed in his house, and had to break the frame to get it out and take it to Porto Alegre to wear on Wednesday. He and Maradona shared a powerful bond — a similar shanty town upbringing in the Buenos Aires periphery, a similar “take me as you find me” pride, a similar stocky build, a similar relationship with Boca Juniors. And perhaps a similar confidence — Maradona took the field with the conviction that he was the best, and Tevez must have been very confident of getting on the scoresheet last Wednesday.
– Marcotti: Maradona soccer’s ultimate flawed genius
Perhaps the only problem is that none of his teammates managed to score. Boca should probably have won by a wider margin and put the tie beyond the reach of Internacional. As it is, the Brazilians still have a chance, but they will have to break down a defence which has only conceded one goal in the competition and has kept six consecutive clean sheets. Boca, of course, could fall into the trap of not knowing whether to protect their lead or go in search of a bigger advantage — a question that could be resolved by the determination of Tevez to pay tribute to Maradona in Buenos Aires as well as Brazil.
The other second round ties have all been completed — Boca against Inter was put back a week because of Maradona’s death — which means that whoever wins already knows their quarterfinal opponents: Racing of Argentina. They can also look further and form a good idea of likely rivals in the semifinals, due to be played in mid-January.
The Brazilians are on an impressive run of form under their new Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, who seems to be getting the best out of a deep squad including some highly promising young talents. With seven wins and a draw, they have the best record of any team in the competition, and no one can match their total of 25 goals. Their last three home matches were 5-0 triumphs.
The only game they failed to win, under previous coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, was a goalless draw in Paraguay, where they now head for Tuesday’s first leg to take on a Libertad team who have the worst record of any team left standing in the competition. Where Palmeiras have scored 25 and conceded three, Libertad’s numbers are 13 versus 12. Paraguayan teams are notorious for punching above their weight, but it would be a major surprise if Libertad were to make it through to the last four.
In the other half of the draw there is an all-Brazilian affair where the tale of the tape might be deceptive. Santos have won six of their eight games in the competition, while Gremio have won five. But the Santos story has been one of digging deep to overcome difficulties. The club have financial problems and have been going through political turmoil, while the team, spearheaded by wingers Marinho and Yeferson Soteldo, have fought their way through a series of hard fought single-goal victories — ending with a home defeat last week against LDU of Ecuador which saw Santos sneak through on the away goals rule.
Gremio, meanwhile, have found the type of form that took them to the title in 2017 and the semifinals in both of the last two years. This is an impressive body of work both from coach Renato Portaluppi and from a well run club with a splendid youth development structure. They sailed into the last eight with 2-0 wins home and away over Guarani of Paraguay, and are favourites to make it through to a fourth consecutive semifinal.
“Gaucho” Portaluppi is a Gremio idol whose current spell in charge of the club started more than four years ago. It is unusual for coaches to stay so long in South America, but it is second best to Marcelo Gallardo, whose time in charge of Argentine giants River Plate began in June 2014. Before that, he cut his coaching teeth with a year in charge of the club where he ended his playing career — Nacional of Uruguay. And these two sides now meet in what might be termed the Gallardo derby.
There is an obvious contrast of styles. The current Nacional team are a cautious outfit, who offered little threat in a couple of goalless draws in the previous round against Ecuador’s Independiente del Valle. Champions in 2018 and beaten finalists last year, Gallardo’s River are an expansive, attractive unit well capable of switching between different tactical systems. It will be interesting to see which formula Gallardo chooses in his quest to breach the Nacional defence, and it will certainly be a surprise if he is not able to come up with the right answer.
More than nine months ago, when the group phase of the Copa Libertadores kicked off, it seemed reasonable to assume that the competition might boil down to a clash between Boca and River and the Brazilians. That still seems like a good prediction as the tournament prepares to define its semifinalists.