Sudamericana success crowns River’s revival
Despite missing out on defending their league title on Sunday, River’s first continental triumph in 17 years marks a return to the glory days for los Millonarios. Though their historic relegation three-and-a-half years ago will never be forgotten, 2014 has been very fruitful with their capture of the Torneo Final and now the Copa Sudamericana going some way to making amends.
After a somewhat fortunate 1-1 draw away in Medellin in the first leg against Atletico Nacional, River saw off the Colombians with two carbon copy set pieces to give them a 3-1 aggregate victory amid jubilant scenes in the Monumental. Twice in five minutes, Leonardo Pisculichi’s left foot delivered inch perfect out swinging corners for Gabriel Mercado and then German Pezzella to thump headers past the sprawling Franco Armani.
It was a fitting conclusion to River’s Sudamericana campaign, ending just as the tournament had begun for them; a Pisculichi delivery was again headed home by Pezzella to give them an injury time winner against Godoy Cruz in the second round. An ominous sign of things to come.
After Godoy Cruz had been dispatched thanks to a Rodrigo Mora brace in the return leg, Libertad were next to be put to the sword in the round of 16. A 5-1 victory may have appeared comfortable but River were made to sweat in the first leg after going a goal behind and then conceding a penalty. However, Rodrigo Lopez sent the spot kick wide and River rallied with a customary strong second half performance to win the game 3-1, before Mercado and Gio Simeone wrapped the tie up back in Buenos Aires.
Indeed, River’s strong resolve and never-say-die attitude was tested again with two hard fought victories against Estudiantes in the quarters, coming from behind in both legs to win 2-1 and 3-2 respectively, and set up a mouth-watering semi-final clash against eternal rivals Boca Juniors.
Coming into the tie, River were experiencing their first real dip in form. Despite inheriting a title winning side from Ramon Diaz, new boss Marcelo Gallardo had got River playing an attractive imperious brand of high intensity attacking football that was earning generous comparisons to the days of La Maquina and his charges looked to be running away with the league.
But with a small squad stretched thin by competing in two competitions and injuries to key personnel such as young midfield lynchpin Matias Kranevitter, River’s record-equalling 31-game unbeaten streak was finally ended by Estudiantes in the league – getting a dose of revenge for their cup exit – and draws against Velez and lowly Olimpo showed a chink in the armour of a tiring team.
Boca, on the other hand, had been galvanised with the arrival of new manager Rodolfo Arruabarrena and suddenly River no longer seemed the overwhelming favourites they had just a couple of weeks before. A 0-0 draw in the Bombonera was the first time River had failed to win a Sudamericana game thus far and everything hinged on the second leg.
Sandwiched between the two fixtures was a crucial league match against title contenders Racing. Faced with a dilemma of whether to prioritise the league or the cup, Muñeco Gallardo could not ignore the all-consuming significance of the identity of his Sudamericana semi rivals and sent out a weakened team to face Racing. The 1-0 loss would prove pivotal in the title race as Racing went on an incredible run to claim a first title in 13 years in which they picked up a staggering 25 points from the last 27 available. Beat Boca though and the gamble would have all been worth it.
The crunch match began in disastrous fashion for the hosts as Boca were awarded a penalty just a few minutes in. Up stepped Emanuel Gigliotti but Marcelo Barovero stuck out a big right paw to bat the ball away to safety and keep the scores level. A decisive moment in the tie had gone River’s way and some ten mintues later so did the second as that man Leonardo Pisculichi swept in Leonel Vangioni’s cross to score the only goal of the game and send los Millonarios into the final, avenging the 2000 and 2004 Libertadores semi -final defeats to Boca in the process. It was not the last telling contribution the veteran playmaker Pisculichi, signed from relegated Argentinos in the summer, would make as he netted the equaliser in the first leg versus Atletico Nacional before turning provider for the two in the second leg.
The Sudamericana victory was a testament to their flexibility and character of River and their young coach Gallardo, still only 38-years-old, as much as anything. From what began as a vibrant attacking side demolishing all in their path, Gallardo showed a pragmatic side as his squad began to ran out of gas, simplifying their approach and using his resources intelligently, as displayed by the fact that it was two defenders scoring from set pieces that eventually won them the cup.
Signing off 2014 in style, things are looking very rosy for River next year. With a talented manager at the helm, a strong spine of the team remaining and a whole host of talented youngsters breaking through, River look to be in a strong position and will be in the running for 4 pieces of silverware in 2015. Should they bolster an already impressive squad, then a Libertadores win to add to the Sudamericana is not out of the question and they will be one of the favourites to lift South America’s premier club prize. After years in the wilderness, River are well and truly back where they belong.