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  • Writer's pictureBernardo Vivas

The Greatest Game In The History of The Bernabeu Should’ve Never Happened

"I'm sorry, River fans, for stealing your Final. I'm sorry for sitting in your chair. To be honest, I wouldn't go to the Bernabeu today. But the temptation to attend one of the greatest events in the history of football is greater than the pride of not participating in such injustice."

This is how Spanish journalist Hugo Cerezo, writing for Marca, described his feelings about attending the second leg of the 2018 Libertadores Final. The match between River Plate and Boca Juniors was going to be played in the Santiago Bernabeu, and he perfectly encapsulated the context of it.

It shouldn't have been played there. I can't stress this enough. The biggest match in the history of the Libertadores de America should've never been played in the home of the club that embodies the spirit of Spanish royalty and colonialism down to its core, to its crest. The crowning moment of a rivalry defined more than anything by passion and the relationship between fan and club would be held on foreign soil. The ultimate local rivalry had become a global event, in the worst way possible.

However, the closer it got to the game, the less all of that seemed to matter. That's the beauty of sports, especially football: in a way, it's a lot more than a game, it does transcend the pitch, it is more than just putting a round ball through a goal; but it also isn't. We can talk about the politics, the history, and the philosophy surrounding a rivalry or a match, but it is just that: surrounding. Ultimately, what matters is that your team wins. That's what makes it all happen, what gives it all meaning. It's the passion. For the game, not what surrounds it.

Ultimately, this game was irresistible. It transcended all that could happen, and loads did happen, off-pitch. It was bigger than politics and history. It could've been played in a public park in La Boca and it wouldn't matter. Even though it was happening in Madrid, for those 120 minutes, it was way bigger than the context.

For the history of football, it was immense. For the fans of those teams and the city of Buenos Aires, it was even bigger.

Xeneize Control

So let's get to it. If you didn't read Part 1, the second leg essentially started 0-0, since the first ended 2-2 and there was no away goal rule. It was, for all intents and purposes, the same as a UCL Final. River's coach, Gallardo, was still suspended and didn't attend the game. He decided from afar to go back to his usual shape of a 4-3-3 after using a 3-5-2 in the first leg, with Armani as the GK, and the familiar backline featuring Montiel and Casco as the FBs, Maidana and Pinola in the middle.

The midfield had new elements, though. During the campaign, Gallardo opted to play with a single pivot and two CMs more advanced, with the pivot being either Ponzio or Enzo Perez, while Nacho Fernandez and Palacios flanked them. However, for this match, the head coach chose to deploy a double pivot with Ponzio and Enzo, while Nacho and Palacios played in the half spaces. Montiel overlapped a lot on the right, while Pity Martinez functioned as a de facto left winger, not as a part of the midfield. With Borré suspended, Pratto was the lone striker.

The idea was to give more structure to the first stage of build-up and crowd the middle to counterbalance Boca's size and intensity in that sector after it gave River troubles in the first leg. Los Xeneizes (Boca's nickname) fielded a very straightforward 4-3-3. This time it was with Benedetto (deservedly) starting in the place of Ábila, with two very fast wingers in Pavon and Villa flanking him, and an extremely intense midfield of Pablo Perez, Barrios, and Nandez.

River's plan turned out to be an absolute disaster. For the first 40 minutes, they barely crossed the halfway line. Pity, their most talented creator, was isolated on the left, while the midfield made the team as dangerous and aggressive as Louis Van Gaal's Man United side. With Los Xeneizes defending in a mid-block and barely ever pressing high, they neutralized all of Gallardo's tactical wagers, since River could neither exploit an eventual mistake and get Pity 1-on-1 against the slower Buffarini, nor take advatage of a more secure press-resistant duo in Ponzio and Enzo since, well, there was no press to resist. Boca's midfield intensity prevailed and their quick attack was way more dangerous, giving the blue and yellow side complete control of the game.

In the 30th minute, Boca almost opened the score when a Benedetto free kick bounced off the wall and fell to a completely free Pablo Perez right at the edge of the 6-yard box. The strike got deflected ever so slightly, and the ball soared just a bit too high for the 5`7" Nández to head it in and too wide for it to go in directly.

Although River had the ball, their rivals were the most comfortable and most dangerous team. The only other good chances the game saw in that period came when Boca was able to explore the speed of their wingers, especially Villa, and cross it into the area, but both times they were thwarted by Armani. After the second one of those, however, at the 40th minute, River was able to counter, when Enzo quickly connected a long ball with Pity on the left, and after passing through Palacios the ball found Montiel who crossed low for Pity, but the number 10 shot it too high. It was the first time River did anything, their first opportunity to make Boca's defense sweat.

In the next few minutes River was a bit closer to the Boca area, it felt like the game was shifting a bit. After Andrada saved a ball right to Pity's feet he crossed, and Palacios was able to regain possession after the Boca defense seemed like they had gotten it back. He crossed it low to Nacho, but the ball was a bit behind the midfielder.

Naturally, in a very hegelian turn of events, when River was at its highest point in the game, Boca scored on the counter. Nandez fired a great pass to Benedetto, who cleared Maidana and, in redemption for his miss at the last minute of the first leg, scored.

Half of the Bernabeu exploded. The other half was basically dead. For the third time in this Final, River was down by one goal. But differently from the first leg, they were also being dominated. There was still a full half of football left to be played, but it seemed like time was pretty much the only thing the fans were desperately holding on to. It felt like the Gremio game all over again.

Juanfer Quintero

Maybe the most valuable aspect of the River squad was the number of playmakers and offensive game-changers Gallardo had at his disposal. During the KO stages, the Argentinian Manager didn't repeat the formation from the midfield and attack once, while starting 9 different players in the 6 available positions (Ponzio, Nacho, Palacios, Pity, Pratto, Scocco, Enzo Perez, Quintero, and Borré), with Palacios being the only one to start every game.

On one hand, that indicated a certain lack of star power in the squad, with everybody being sort of interchangeable. On the other, it showed how versatile it was, counting on players with different characteristics to be able to step up depending on what the team needed.

That night in Madrid, River decided to field a more physically imposing team, in an attempt to control the midfield and provide a more secure platform for breaking the intense Boca press. They sacrificed some creativity up front in order to have 4 strong and safe midfielders in Ponzio, Nacho, Palacios, and Enzo Perez.

It didn't work at all. It allowed Boca to play a very comfortable game, not having to press, as they were able to neutralize a team that lacked speed and creativity by simply crowding the area between the halfway line and the box. River had no creativity because Pity, their best creator, was isolated in the left wing, and their size and build-up structure didn't matter, cause Boca wasn't fighting them on those terms. It was simply a slow and predictable team that was now losing the title.

For the first 56 minutes of the game, Los Millionarios broke Boca's first line of defense once. And then Juanfer Quintero subbed in for Ponzio and changed everything. The Colombian International came in as a RM, constantly changing positions with Nacho, who also operated in the right, and even Palacios drifted to that side a bit, while Montiel became a de facto wing-back, providing width. Pity remained isolated on the left, but essentially everything happened on the right.

Juanfer gave a new level of dynamism and creativity to the team. With his immense reservoir of class, technical ability, short-space dribbling and touch, he was able to find passes that cut through the Boca defense and create spaces that weren't there before. River slowly were able to gain ground, break the first line of defense, and get closer to the box, all happening from the right with Quintero, Nacho, and Montiel.

Fittingly, 10 minutes after he came in, Quintero found Nacho on the edge of the box, who played a one-two with Palacios and found Pratto in the Penalty Mark. The experienced Argentinian scored a goal (very similar to the one against Racing I mentioned in the previous article) that illustrated this River team perfectly: a mix of individual brilliance, tactical excellence (the build-up was classically positional), and the nerve to pull off such a brilliant play in such an incredibly tense moment.

In a sense, Quintero personified that for River. Was subbed into an incredibly complicated game, with a very defined tactical role, but it was his technical excellence and mental resolve that changed the game. For the next 20 minutes of regulation, the game followed the same dynamic, with Juanfer being the center of everything, creating spaces, finding passes into the final third, and dominating possession.

However, regulation ended without either team creating any more big chances. River had taken control of the game, and was constantly dangerous, with Palacios drifting even more to the right and Quintero playing exuberant football, but couldn't connect on the final ball. Towards the end of regulation Montiel came off for Mayada, while Boca subbed in the experienced Gago for Perez.

As overtime started, the tension in the stadium was palpable, and it became almost unbearable when Wilmar Barrios fouled Palacios with a harsh tackle and was sent off with a second yellow, which forced Schelotto to swap the more aggressive Villa for the FB Jara (remember this name). Both teams were nervous, and the red card made everything even more tense. Well, everybody but the little Colombian Magician that is. Juanfer continued to terrorize Los Xeneizes, who were hanging by a thread now with one less defender.

At minute 108, the thread broke. In a play that started on the left with a Pity cross and the Boca GK cleared, the ball found Juanfer Quintero. With a cheeky flick he spotted Julian Alvarez, who had come in for Palacios 10 minutes earlier (yes, that Julian Alvarez), and the youngster opened the play to Mayada, who passed it back to a Juanfer surrounded by 3 defenders on the edge of the box. The Colombian had already changed the game whole complexion of the game, even before that moment. But now, he was staring immortality right in the eye.

Photo by Juanjo Martin, EFE

When the missile fired by his left foot hit the bottom of the crossbar and splashed the back of the net, Quintero sprinted to the corner of the pitch, almost dancing and jumping with joy, more like a kid that scored in a high school game. His career would never be the same after that, plagued by injuries and fitness problems. You could say he is one of those players that modern football chews up and spits out. But it didn't really matter, because with that powerful strike, he became a legend. After all, he scored the biggest goal in the history of Club Football.

Nothing Is Bigger Than The Game

The game, however, wasn't over yet. To make sure nobody had that illusion, Mayada almost tied the game with an own goal, but Armani saved the header right above the goal line. In the 110th minute, Tevez came in for Buffarini, and Boca played desperate football for the next 10 minutes, with the exuberant chants of the River fans making the cold Santiago Bernabeu feel like home for those players for a while.

But desperation comes at a price. Not only did River have the numerical advantage, but they were also the more organized and fresh team at that point, getting way closer to extending their advantage than to allowing a Boca goal, with Álvarez, Pity, and Pratto all wasting good chances. So when Fernando Gago left the game injured in the 117th minute, and River spent the next 3 holding on to the ball, it truly felt like it was over. Boca had no energy, no structure, and barely any players left to mount a comeback.

But football, as anybody who follows it knows very well, is absolutely ruthless. It's a very low-sample game, meaning a very low number of scores happen every game, and thus everything can change in a matter of seconds. A team that had dominated and done everything right, like River had for the past 75 minutes, holding every advantage possible, can see all the work be undone by one unlucky bounce.

So when, in minute 120, Nathaniel Nandez lifted the ball into the box and it fell right in front of Jara, the FB who had checked in to try to restructure Boca's fractured defense, who fired a volley that grazed off the leg of a River defender and hit the post, the warning issued by the The Argentinian Foundation of Cardiology made all the sense in the world.

The Boca players fell to their knees in desperation, in an image reminiscent of the Ajax players crumbling after Lucas Moura completed his hat-trick to push Tottenham into their first UCL Final, and the fans of both teams looked incredulous. The stadium, which a few seconds ago was roaring with the chants of River fans, fell silent. Football had once again reminded everyone how ruthless it can be, how it doesn't allow for complacency, from either side.

So when, just a few seconds later, Quintero controlled the clearance of the corner and passed it to Pity, who had a free run to an open goal, it seemed like the football gods were just trying to make sure Los Millionarios didn't get too cocky. It was finally over, River was up 3-1 and, when the whistle blew a minute later, were officially the kings of not only South America but more importantly, Buenos Aires.

Winning the Libertadores is known as "The Eternal Glory", and that title was never as appropriate. In a rivalry that involves so much more than just dribbles and goals, in a match that went back centuries to the origins of the South American continent and the competition itself, that symbolized all that is beautiful and ugly about both Argentina and Football, nothing was more important than those 120 minutes. While the location of the match didn't make it bigger, if anything it was the other way around, the stain that it left was in everything that surrounded it. But the game, the glory of victory, the passion of the rivalry itself?

That transcends everything because it is what makes us feel. Football is more than a game, but nothing is bigger than the game. So, at least for now, River had won the most important game in the history of Club Football and, most importantly, gave their fans eternal bragging rights.


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