January 5 – Can Santos win the Copa Libertadores for the first time since 2011 or will one of the traditional Buenos Aires clubs prevail? Or will Palmeiras ensure Brazil wins the competition for a second competitive time?
On Tuesday, River Plate host Palmeiras and on Wednesday, Boca Juniors welcome Santos, with places in the competition’s final up for grabs in two-legged semifinals over the next two weeks.
The 61st edition of the Copa Libertadores will crown a new champion on January 30 at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium and whichever way the semi-finals pan out, locals won’t be happy about it. In the second round, Rio club and defending South American champions Flamengo crashed out against Racing Club, ending hopes of retaining the title at their own ionic ground.
With the fan favorite out of the competition, a scenario looms in which one of the Argentine giants or a Sao Paulo rival conquer the Copa Libertadores on Rio turf.
River Plate play Palmeiras in arguably the strongest semi-final. Marcelo Gallardo’s team won the competition in 2015 and 2018 and this is River’s fourth consecutive appearance in the last four. His eleven play football on the front foot, but doubts remain about their defensive qualities. In last year’s final, River Plate collapsed in the last five minutes of the match to relinquish a 1-0 lead against Flamengo.
Palmeiras are a dynamic team, with a penchant for quick counter-attacking. They are aptly coached by the Portuguese Abel Ferreira. On the wings, they have the speed of Ronny and Gabriel Veron and at the back Gustavo Gomez anchors the defense. The Sao Paulo club have only conceded four goals in the competition so far and enjoy a 100% home record.
In the other semi-final, Boca Juniors will hope to squeeze past Pele’s former club to set up another final against their cross-town rivals. The club of the late Diego Maradona is still haunted by defeat to River Plate in 2018. They will bank on the experienced Carlos Tevez to lead them past their Brazilian opponents. The striker has become central to Miguel Angel Russo plans, having looked spent when he arrived at the club last year.
But Santos won’t simply roll over. In the 60’s, the club had a claim to be the best in the world when Pele led them to the Copa Libertadores twice in 1962 and 1963, but inevitably the small team, 60 miles down the road from Sao Paulo, couldn’t keep up those exploits.
In 2011, they conquered South America again when Neymar emerged as Brazil’s leading talent, and this year they are back against all the odds – Santos is all but bankrupt and were banned by FIFA from entering the transfer market. Relying on youth has proven to be successful, with Kaio Jorge and Sandry among the teenagers to have excelled in leading Santos to an unlikely spot among the last four.
Can they overcome Boca Juniors to prevent more Argentine domination in the competition? It is very much Brazil – Argentina for a place in the final from here on in the competition.
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1611605052labto1611605052ofdlr1611605052owedi1611605052sni@o1611605052fni1611605052