By Ed Malyon
The Copa Libertadores final line-up was something unusual for South American football.
It was predictable.
With the champions of Argentina facing the champions of Brazil, the ultimate showpiece for elite CONMEBOL football was suddenly normalised, conventional.
Boca Juniors were in their tenth final, looking to draw level with Buenos Aires neighbours Independiente as the competition’s most successful team, while Corinthians were hoping to win their first ever Libertadores and shake off the age-old taunts of their rivals that have tasted victory in South America’s premier club competition.
It could be argued that these two teams qualifying from their semi-finals is the proof that defensive football is spreading worldwide, with the clubs eliminated last week – Santos and Universidad de Chile – being the competition’s biggest entertainers.
Just as Athletic Club had swashbuckled, swarmed, entertained and then ran out of steam in Europe this year, reigning Copa Sudamericana champions Universidad de Chile had done the same. The Bilbao side are no coincidental comparison; Jorge Sampaoli is the ultimate Marcelo Bielsa disciple/fetishist and his side has stayed steadfastly true to those Bielsan principles throughout. Unfortunately, the strain of nearly eighty games in a season took its toll on a high-energy system, and we will never see a ‘La U’ side like this again with the key players and manager likely to be part of a dismantling process dictated by financial offers too good to refuse.
It is said that Sampaoli once rang Bielsa to apologise for a defeat, even though he hadn’t met him, which gives you an insight into how rigorously idealistic Sampaoli is about his system. Nonetheless, it was a system stifled by Boca’s defensive solidity, and picked apart by Juan Roman Riquelme’s all-seeing eye in the first leg of the semi-final, from which the Chileans never recovered.
Corinthians had the tricky all-Brazilian tie with Santos to negotiate if they were to reach a first ever final, but Neymar’s entertainers who scored eight (yes, 8) in an earlier game in this season’s competition simply couldn’t break through an organised, compact opponent. The 4-2-3-1 that Corinthians play has been described as ‘European’ in the Brazilian media for its supposed modernity and effectiveness, but as Velez had done with success in the quarter-finals, Santos’ opponents marked Neymar out of the game and found that the Peixe had very little else to offer.
The Corinthians double-pivot of Ralf and Paulinho has been vital for them over the last 12-18 months and in the first half at La Bombonera it was Paulinho who burst out of the blocks.
While his partner Ralf was charged with trying to track the one they call Román, Paulinho’s role is the transitional one of turning defence into attack, and one that he performs masterfully. His energy though, was soon matched by that of Pablo Ledesma and Walter Erviti on the flanks of Boca’s midfield diamond as the hosts began to take charge.
The incessant wall of noise at La Bombonera never fails to impress, and for this final La Doce had ramped it up. Buenos Aires firework-makers will have had a profitable week as hundreds of tons of gunpowder exploded over the sky of La Boca on the emergence of the two teams, but the on-pitch action showed little to match it before the break. It was in the second half that the hosts began to turn the screw slowly more and more, with the predictably central figure of Juan Roman Riquelme orchestrating proceedings.
Occasionally a player like Riquelme can disappear from games but in the Libertadores you see a fire in him like nowhere else and his performances throughout this season’s competition have mirrored this desire. His abilities are no secret, and yet no team has been able to get to grips with him to mark him out of games like we have seen with Brazil’s biggest star several times in the knockout stage alone.
It’s all in his drift, his drop, his dart… He finds space like no player in memory. In this game the central area of the pitch was packed; with Corinthians playing a narrow back four, two deeper midfielders and then a further three tracking back but for every pocket of space, there was a millisecond when Riquelme would be there, and he was the beating heart of Boca, yes, but also the genius brain.
As he covertly ambled to the left to perform yet another reprise of his telepathic link-up with Clemente Rodriguez, Corinthians were baffled once more. With the brainless energy of Pablo Mouche and the slightly fearsome lunacy of Santiago Silva, the back four was constantly occupied, providing a stage for Román to conduct upon. He did just that; pointing, pulling, probing and creating chances for his teammates, with only their non-conversion failing el diez as they initiated complete control.
When the deserved goal arrived for Boca Juniors, his involvement was minimal, but he was still the undoubted star of the show. That was, until Romarinho.
Having only just signed for Corinthians from Serie B side Bragantino, little was known about Romarinho – except that he shouldn’t be confused with Romarinho of Vasco, who is the son of Barcelona legend Romario – but coming off the bench for his first appearance in the Copa Libertadores, with his first ever touch in the competition, he dinked the ball over Agustin Orión to equalise in the 85th minute of the Copa Libertadores final.
La Bombonera was stunned.
Such domination was made wholly irrelevant by the slightest flick of a boot. Corinthians had done what they came to do, and somehow avoided defeat to the favourites and hosts. Manager Tite will take the plaudits for the changes he made, and rightfully so, but for the neutral there was obviously the intrigue of a supremely balanced tie, but also a return of the thing that we love in South American football – nay, football in general – the unpredictability. However undeserved it may have been, Corinthians will go into the second leg at Pacaembu level and undoubtedly favourites having been outplayed comprehensively by an inspired Boca Juniors side.
To be continued…
Ed Malyon is a freelance sports writer and scout from London, England.