If not for the constant naming of each team involved in Wednesday’s Supercopa, one could be forgiven for believing that the World Cup final was on the line for Boca Juniors and River Plate in Mendoza. The latest Superclásico was hyped to an almost unreal degree, far beyond the level reasonable for a game that in previous years and with different participants has passed almost unnoticed by your average football fan.
To a degree the hysteria over the clash was understandable. Not since 1976 had Boca and River faced off in an official final, the decider of the Nacional tournament that acted as a curious precursor to a purely nationwide football calendar parallel to the traditional Metropolitana tournament disputed exclusively by teams from Buenos Aires and Rosario. Boca ran out champions on that occasion thanks to a solitary goal from captain Rubén Suñé, and four decades had passed without a repeat. Not even the laudable Copa Argentina, launched in 2011 and lifted by both Superclásico rivals, has yet fulfilled the fevered fantasies of television executives in delivering their ideal final.
So it was left to the Supercopa, a clash between the Primera División holders and the reigning Copa Argentina champions, to fill the void. And perhaps in order to justify the fixture’s caging behind the codified paywall that since 2017 has masked Argentina’s biggest matches the hype built to almost unbearable proportions: more, certainly, than either of the two Buenos Aires greats could ever hope to match in a game that tends to produce more controversy than quality once the pair take the field.
Judging by the formbook the ‘Superfinal,’ as it was somewhat predictably dubbed in the media, social media and beyond, should have been a walkover. A Boca side in imperious form entered as clear favourites, while River had only managed to break a five-game winless streak the past weekend with a less than convincing late victory over Patronato.
OUT THE WINDOW
As so often happens in a one-off clash, however, Marcelo Gallardo’s men gleefully threw the formbook out of the window.
With the backdrop of Mendoza’s resplendent Malvinas Argentinas stadium filled with fireworks, music and – the most glorious sight for longsuffering observers – supporters from both sides rubbing shoulders in combative yet largely peaceful fashion, River took advantage of a listless Boca performance in the first half to take the lead.
While the Xeneize flopped and floundered across the pitch, never threatening Franco Armani in the River net, a clinical Gonzalo Martínez penalty gave their rivals the breakthrough after Nacho Fernández had been downed clumsily by Edwin Cardona. Gallardo’s face said it all: the coach, under immense pressure due to his side’s indifferent start to the season, celebrated the opener with unrestrained delight on the sidelines and remained an animated presence throughout the 90 minutes.
A virtual spectator before the break, Armani showed why River had broken the bank for him with a superlative second half. The goalkeeper, one of the possibilities Jorge Sampaoli is considering for a place at Russia 2018, did his hopes no harm with a string of brilliant saves to stop a Boca side that had finally snapped out of its trance, the finest stop perhaps a point-blank shot from Cristian Pavón tipped onto the River crossbar.
One of those saves led directly to a slick River counter from a corner, Fernández eating up the Malvinas Argentinas turf with a lung-busting run. Substitute Ignacio Scocco was in the right place to convert the Millonarios second of the evening, the goal that ended Boca’s brief resurgence and sealed a night to remember for the underdogs.
“This is why I came to River, to win titles,” an exultant Armani said after the game, and not even a ridiculous Burger King crown planted on his head as his ‘prize’ for being named man of the match could dim his spirits.
Goalscorer Scocco, meanwhile, hit the nail on the head with a simple conclusion: “This is a one-off game.”
River deservedly lifted the Supercopa not because they were the superior side, but rather because Gallardo’s game-plan was tailor-made to nullify a Boca side with quality scattered across the pitch but which suffers for lack of an orthodox centre-forward when starved of space.
His counterpart Guillermo Barros Schelotto, meanwhile, must face up to yet another failure in cup competition. The Boca coach made all the wrong calls, from his toothless, apathetic starting line-up to the overly timid use of substitutions when it became clear the fixture was slipping away from his grasp.
Both teams will be back in action in the Superliga this weekend, a stage where Boca are running away with yet another title while River struggle in mid-table. But while Wednesday’s Supercopa was barely worth the hype it will still leave deep scars in the defeated Xeneize, whose limitations were shown up by a rival that takes ample satisfaction in showing who holds the upper hand when trophies are on the line.