Boca Juniors, River Plate draw in first leg of Copa Libertadores final

(Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)
(Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images) /

La Bombonera was electric for the first leg of the 2018 Copa Libertadores final. River Plate have the advantage after a 2-2 draw away against Boca Juniors.

Fans of South American soccer were forced to wait an extra day for the Superclásico showdown in the Copa Libertadores final. Torrential rains in Buenos Aires forced the postponement of the first leg of the Libertadores final at La Bombonera, with the match rescheduled for the same 2:00 p.m. ET start on Sunday.

The match was well worth the wait. The two sides tested one another, and things got somewhat chippy in the first half-hour of the match. By the end of the match, six yellow cards had been issued between the two sides.

A pitch was intact, but still looked slow from the rains of the previous day. As things dried out more throughout the match, things sped up in the movement of the ball. In the end, despite the delays and the conditions, the two sides managed a four-goal thriller as Boca drew against River in a 2-2 decision that sets up River Plate with a decided advantage heading into the second leg of the final on Nov. 24.

Boca Juniors opened the scoring in the 34th minute, taking the ball on a counterattack and pressing quickly up the pitch. Ramón Ábila turned his marker just outside the left corner of the box, cut toward the middle onto his right foot, and uncorked a shot that challenged River Plate goalkeeper Franco Armani.

The keeper parried away the first shot, but Ábila followed the rebound and struck the ball with his left foot toward the near post. Armani had the spot covered, but the ball squirted between the keeper and into the back of the net.

Before the celebrations could even die down among the one-sided crowd at La Bombonera, though, River Plate had their equalizer thanks to Lucas Pratto. On the restart after Ábila’s goal, River launched a long pass up the pitch that found Pratto.

Shielding the ball from his defender, Pratto edged into the box and coolly tapped the ball past an outstretched Boca Juniors goalkeeper Agustín Rossi with the instep of his right foot. It was a display of calm and class in the moment that leveled the contest back up and gave River a critical away goal heading into the second leg.

Before halftime, though, Dario Benedetto was able to restore the lead for the hosts. Benedetto entered the game in the 27th minute, after Cristian Pavón proved incapable of staying on the field. Pavón, dealing with a hamstring issue, was simply unable to continue. It seemed like it would be a blow for Boca Juniors, which had depended on Pavón’s brilliance for most of the Copa Libertadores.

Instead, Benedetto surprised everyone by proving the catalyst for Boca’s resurgence. A minute into first-half stoppage time, Benedetto timed his leap perfectly and headed in a free kick from Sebastián Villa. The ball redirected into the top corner of the goal past a diving Armani.

A few minutes later, stoppage time ended and the two teams went to the locker room with Boca Juniors up 2-1 in their Copa Libertadores showdown against their biggest rival. Through the first 15 minutes after the break, the scoreline held. But a River Plate free kick was mishandled in costly fashion.

In the 61st minute, Gonzalo Martínez launched a free kick into the box. As the ball flew in toward goal, Pratto once again was in the mix as he jockeyed for position with Boca Juniors defender  Carlos Izquierdoz. The ball grazed Izquierdoz’s head, redirecting past Rossi and into the Boca net. The own goal allowed River Plate to level the match once again and gave the visitors a second away goal for the aggregate scoreline.

Boca struggled to find another lead, pressing forward and getting the bulk of the opportunities after the own goal. But Armani and the River defense continued to play solid defense, holding the hosts scoreless in the final half-hour of play on Sunday afternoon.

The hosts had one last chance to take the lead, as 73rd-minute substitute Carlos Tevez and Dario Benedetto streaked past the River back line and generated a fierce challenge. Tevez turned around the last defender, then slotted the ball laterally to Benedetto. Teeing off, Benedetto was met by a surging Armani who had come off his line to challenge the pass. Armani tipped away the pass with his outstretched foot, as it flew toward the corner flag and relative safety.

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Thus things concluded at 2-2. In earning the draw in hostile territory and getting several goals along the way, River Plate came away the clear winners of the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final. River need only to draw 0-0 or 1-1 to ensure the club’s second Copa Libertadores title in four years.

For Boca Juniors to get back into this fixture and secure their first Copa Libertadores crown since 2007, they must win at El Monumental on Nov. 24. After ceding the advantage they built up on Izquierdoz’s own goal, a win or a draw of 3-3 or higher is what Boca needs to snatch away the Libertadores from their rivals.