COMMENT By Daniel Edwards
“The police fire pepper spray,” read the mocking banner in the Monumental which welcomed Boca Juniors into unfriendly territory. Arch-rivals River Plate have certainly enjoyed the Superclasico, the match which paralyses all four corners of Argentina, in recent years.
Even more so since those shameful scenes that marked the last meeting between the two clubs before Sunday. There, unable to vanquish their enemies on the pitch and recover a 1-0 aggregate lead, Boca supporters resorted to the cowardliest of attacks. The result was a swift elimination from the Copa Libertadores, and the further insult of watching River go on to win the trophy.
Now, thanks in part to an inspired Carlos Tevez, those wounds can begin to heal.
The former Juventus man thought that his dreams had come true 19 minutes into the first half. A rapid Xeneize breakaway down the right flank by Sebastian Palacios led to Tevez arriving alone in the area. He took down the ball with typical class, and looked to round the final obstacle, goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero.
Barovero’s desperate lunge just managed to deny Boca’s No.10, but on hand was Nicolas Lodeiro to thump the ball home off the rebound and send the visitors into the lead. Tevez did not grab that goal which would have brought River minds racing back to 2004, when an impudent young striker taunted them with a ‘Chicken Dance’ in the middle of a Libertadores semi-final. But he was nevertheless the hub of Boca’s attacks, always keeping River nervous and playing a crucial role in the only goal of the evening.
It is only fair to clarify that River were complicit in their downfall. More than anything, the twin towers of Jonathan Maidana and Ramiro Funes Mori were sorely missed in defence. The latter secured a move to Everton and the Premier League, while the former failed a late fitness test to miss out on the derby.
Replacements Eder Alvarez Balanta and Emanuel Mammana will one day be wonderful central defenders. But the pair’s inexperience and lack of big-match savvy was sorely exposed, as Boca’s slick counter-attacks and use of the wide expanses of the Monumental pitch caught them out time and again. New signing Milton Casco on the left was another to suffer the Xeneize’s precise, rapid incursions, although the ex-Newell’s Old Boys full-back grew in stature after a disastrous start.
Agustin Orion also proved his worth. Boca’s shot-stopper pulled off two stunning saves, both from headers, to keep River at bay as the home team began to probe more incisively following a nightmare first half-hour. But the Millonario in general were a far cry from that side which battled to the Libertadores crown just one month ago. Not even their own returning hero, in this case Lucho Gonzalez, could make the difference against Tevez’s troops.
Boca did not by any means set the world alight on Sunday. But Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s charges, Carlitos and all, did just enough to reset the balance of a fixture which in recent years had tipped overwhelmingly into River’s favour. The Xeneize moreover return to the top of the Primera Division standings, a place they have claimed as their own for almost the entirety of 2015 but fell back with a poor 1-0 home defeat to title rivals San Lorenzo just one week before meeting River.
Tevez was absent for that top-of-the-table clash, a victim of international commitments, and it showed in a poor display all round. Now though, the People’s Player, the king of La Boca has returned.
Boca still face some tough fixtures in their last six games of the Primera season. They will also almost certainly be forced to negotiate the run-in without midfield general Fernando Gago, whose Achilles tendon appeared to give way in a sickeningly painful fashion just 20 seconds into the Superclasico. But the advantage lies with the men in blue and gold.
The title is the Xeneize’s to lose – and with Tevez in form it would take a brave man indeed to bet against them.