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How River Plate striking sensation Romero was shaped by Crespo and came back from career-ending injury

4:00 AM EDT 8/4/21
Braian Romero River Plate
A journeyman winger whose injury problems should have seen him retire early was nonetheless turned into a lethal striker by legendary Hernan Crespo

As special a moment as Argentina's Superclasico between Boca Juniors and River Plate is, even the players involved must at this point be growing a little tired of their arch-rivals.

Wednesday's Copa Argentina tie marks the third time the two Buenos Aires giants have met in 2021, and they are set to lock horns once against inside two months in the Liga Profesional.

Indeed, were it not for Boca's controversial Copa Libertadores elimination at the hands of Atletico Mineiro the pair would be gearing up for yet another head-to-head in the competition's quarter-finals, which would have taken year's tally up to a rather repetitive six derby clashes.

But there is at least one Superclasico newcomer who will be raring to go. Braian Romero is the man of the moment at River thanks to his goalscoring prowess, having taken the long way round to reach the pinnacle of Argentine football.

Romero, 30, was one of the few eye-catching transfers in a quiet winter window in Argentina, with most teams still reeling from the financial catastrophe of the coronavirus pandemic.

River parted with just over $2 million (£1m) to land the striker from Defensa y Justicia as a replacement for Colombia international Rafael Borre, who moved on to Eintracht Frankfurt. It did not take long for him to make his mark.

In Romero's very first game he set up Matias Suarez for the Millonarios' only goal in a 1-1 Libertadores draw with former club Argentinos. In the return match, his double, including a spectacular long-range strike, set Marcelo Gallardo's men on course for victory and a place in the quarters of the continental competition.

They are the only Argentine team to reach the last eight as Boca, Racing Club and others all fell by the wayside.

Romero's first six outings have yielded an impressive four goals and one assist and he will be River's main threat against Boca. But the fact he has reached this level at all is little short of a miracle.

Having become a father at 16, Romero put his budding football career on hold when the arrival of a younger brother in the family forced him to seek steadier employment. He went to work at his father's fruit and vegetable stand, before re-entering the game at third-tier Acassuso.

In 2013, though, the 22-year-old would face another grave challenge in the pursuit of his dream.

“One day I went to take a nap and when I got up my hip was hurting, the pain kept growing and I went to training,” he recalled to CONMEBOL's official website. “The club doctors took me to hospital and I was held there, my entire body from the neck down was hurting and after some tests I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I couldn't walk for two months.

“After a period of undergoing ineffective treatment there was a meeting with the doctors, my family and the Acassuso president and they told me to look for another line of work because I wouldn't be able to keep playing.”

Romero was sidelined for almost 18 months but eventually a rigid regimen of medication and steroid treatments took effect and he was able to retake the field; the player himself, meanwhile, credits a higher power for his recovery. “I received a miracle from God,” he told TN.

“I was losing everything I had dreamed about. The doctor who told me I would never play again could not believe it when he saw I was recovered. He did all he could to heal me, but it was God who healed me.”

After a short spell at Colon, the rejuvenated winger finally broke out under Gabriel Heinze at Argentinos Juniors, netting 15 goals in 2016-17 to land the club the B Nacional title and promotion back to the top flight.

More silverware was to come during a stopover in Brazil with Athletico Paranaense, who lifted the 2019 Copa do Brasil with Romero in their ranks; but it was another ex-Argentina idol, Hernan Crespo, who with a drastic positional change brought the best football out of his charge.

Having only ever broken double figures in a season once in his career, Romero, now at Defensa y Justicia and re-invented as a hard-running centre-forward, scored 10 in as many Copa Sudamericana games to bring the club its first-ever trophy at the start of 2021. Two more strikes saw Defensa upset Palmeiras on penalties to take the Recopa. 

His current Libertadores tally for the season stands at five in as many games between his former and new employers - the latest of which, a towering late header past Huracan's Marco Diaz - rescued a point for River on Sunday evening with their only goal of a 1-1 draw.

“He came to me as a winger and one day in training I was watching from the tower and I thought the team needed a bit more spice up front,” Crespo, now at Sao Paulo, told ESPN of his successful bid to turn Romero into one of South America's most lethal strikers.

“I came down and said to Braian, 'we're going to play a second half of 30 minutes, I want you at No.9 and I'll try to give you two players who can feed you'. He gave us what we needed in the final third, that explosiveness and he felt comfortable.

“He scored twice in 15 minutes and had several more great chances, it was crazy.”

Romero's account is similar, albeit with another goal added for good measure. “Crespo asked me to be his No.9 and run the diagonals on the inside because he wanted to see me in that position,” he confirmed to TyC Sports . “I went and scored three in 20 minutes, one of those things in football. By chance it happened to me.

“We started fine-tuning some things, reading play better, to think more, time myself better, improve my profile, play off the looks on my team-mates' faces and take advantage of my speed without rushing myself, I learned a lot from Hernan."

It is difficult to imagine a better mentor in front of goal than the former Inter, Chelsea, Parma and Argentina ace, and it is River who are reaping the benefits now.

Unbeaten in the league after four games and raring to go against Atletico in next week's first leg in the Monumental, victory over Boca would keep them in the running for three major titles in 2021, a daunting but certainly far from insurmountable challenge.

There is talent all across Gallardo's squad, from Copa America-winning trio Franco Armani, Gonzalo Montiel and Julian Alvarez to grizzled veteran competitors like centre-back Jonathan Maidana and midfielder-cum-emergency goalkeeper Enzo Perez, as tenacious as ever at 35.

It is clear, though, that even less than 10 games into his River career, Romero's goals will be key to delivering on that potential and returning silverware to Nunez after a barren 2020.

Having battled adversity throughout his career, the journeyman winger who Crespo turned into one of the best finishers around will also not be intimidated in the slightest by the challenge of leading the line for the South American giants.