It all still works – Boca Juniors can still dream of winning the Copa Libertadores to honor the memory of Diego Maradona and of meeting Buenos Aires rivals River Plate in the final for the second time in three years. And there is now security for a semifinal with Pele vs. Maradona theme over two legs in January after Boca set up a meeting with Santos of Brazil after to beat compatriots Racing 2-1 overall.
Boca went down 1-0 in last week’s first stage, another consecutive single-goal defeat and another sad display in a row. Coach Miguel Angel Russo had a big call and can feel happy that he got it right. Center-forward Franco Soldano has many critics, hardly a surprise given his recent record – a league goal this weekend was his first in 16 games. Soldano clearly has his limitations, and the knives were sharpened when he wasted a clear chance right at the start of the game. Set clear, but he lacked fraud to beat the goalkeeper Gabriel Arias.
But the movement highlighted why Soldano was the right choice for this game. Racing game with a rear three with the aim of staying compact as high up on the track as possible. For the early chance, Soldano were able to run behind their high defensive line. This scared Racing to defend deeper. Soldano’s mobility opened up space for Carlos Tevez to circulate, and once Racing had been forced back, Boca was able to find the space down the flanks to turn the screw.
Racing coach Sebastian Beccacece looks for strong performances from his wingbacks, Fabricio Dominguez and Eugenio Mena – and there was a glimpse of what would have been a crucial goal in the first half when Dominguez’s push set up a chance for Lorenzo Melgarejo, who drew his shot wide. The obvious risk is that the opposition may enter the space behind the wing bakers – and Boca did it again and again. Racing was unable to cope with Boca’s fullback / wing kick combinations Leo Jara and Eduardo Salvio down to the right and Frank Fabra and Sebastian Villa down to the left.
Arias excelled in the surprising triumph of the last round against reigning champions Flamengo in Brazil. He was even better against Boca and pulled out a series of wonderful saves. But he could do nothing to prevent a goal that had everything to do with Boca’s dominance down the flanks. Mena was drawn infield and was not tight enough to prevent Jara from sending a deep cross from the Boca right wing. Dominguez was hit in the air by Villa and the ball fell for Salvio to lead a header in the top corner.
A proactive coach, Beccacece made two changes in the interval in the hope that his team could find enough attacking rhythm to score an away goal. But it may very well be the case that he showed an excessive loyalty to Lisandro Lopez, his captain and veteran center-forward. Lopez has not found the target since October last year. The statistics are a bit cruel because included in that time is Argentinasummer vacation and the long hiatus of the coronavirus pandemic. Still, it seems to indicate that time has deprived him of much of his threat to the goal. He would have been an obvious candidate to leave the field in a team that made two attacking substitutions. But Beccacece kept faith with him, took the talented Mathias Rojas off and used Lopez in a deeper midfield role.
It all went wrong in the hour. Boca moved the ball skillfully from left to right, Salvio went after a dribble from the outside and Lopez jumped in with a clumsy challenge that gave a clear penalty. The villa was a surprising choice to step up to the place. Arias had gotten better all night and dived the right way – but not quite far enough, and Boca was all together.
Lopez was sent back in front with an interesting teenager Carlos Alvarez comes in midfield. It was Alvarez who came closest to a Racing goal and hit a shot that the Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada had to look closely to push around the jump. But with only three goals conceded, Boca boasts the best defensive record in the competition, and they played the last half hour with little alarm.
Boca Juniors then advance to their third consecutive Libertadores semifinal and their fourth in five years. The only thing they will consider good enough is their first title since 2007, preferably achieved against River Plate to avenge the defeat they suffered at the hands of their biggest rivals in the 2018 final. First, however, there is the exciting case of a semi-final that pits Santos against Boca Juniors, where the shadow of South America’s two biggest players will surely weave great.