River Plate – Boca Juniors: River Plate Outclass Boca In First Leg Of Libertadores Semi-Final (2-0)

This match had everything one would expect from an encounter of this magnitude: crunching tackles, a boisterous atmosphere and a red card, as the two inexhaustible opponents went head-to-head in one of the game’s greatest rivalries. However, it was the scintillating play of River’s front four that set the tempo for the match and gave the hosts the advantage heading into the second leg at La Bombonera. 

Match report and tactical analysis by K.T. Stockwell.

Sitting top of the table in Argentina, Boca have looked imperious so far this season, with manager Gustavo Alfaro’s side unbeaten domestically and near impossible to break down defensively. Boca’s 4-1-4-1 system has only conceded one goal in eight matches in the Superliga Argentina and though they do not score often, the club is receiving balanced support going forward from the likes of Carlos Tévez, Ramón Ábila, Franco Soldano and Alexis Mac Allister. Alfaro prefers his side to be direct in attack, which is made possible by the strength of Ábila and Tévez up front – both strikers capable of running onto flicked headers, as well as holding up play.  

Boca’s run in the Libertadores has been no different, as Alfaro’s side cruised through the group stage and made relatively quick work of Athletico Paranaense and LDU Quito in the round of 16 and quarter-final respectively. The clash with River in the semi-final was always going to be more challenging, evidenced by the 0-0 played out by the two rivals at the start of September.

Conversely, River started the season slow domestically, only mustering one win from their first five Superliga Argentina fixtures. The leisurely start has meant that River presently find themselves sitting sixth in the table – four points back of their rivals for top spot.

The Libertadores has presented similar challenges for Marcelo Gallardo’s men, who looked lethargic in the group stage – drawing four matches and needing two pivotal victories over Palestino and Alianza Lima to snatch the second qualifying place. The underwhelming group stage showing forced them into a difficult round of 16 matchup with Cruzeiro – only narrowly escaping on penalties. River’s quarter-final engagement with Cerro Porteño was perhaps not as simple as Gallardo would have liked, with Porteño proving to be stubborn in a hard-fought second leg. 

This is a young River side, particularly up front, and there is a sense that when they are afforded space they can be devastating in attack. However, the more stubborn the defense, the more frustrated they seem to become and in so doing, lack patience in their buildup. 

An early penalty sets the tempo

The atmosphere was electric at the start of the match, and the wind was extremely high – littering the field with the streamers and balloons used for the famous Argentinean pre-match choreography. As is common when these two sides meet, emotions ran high and the opening minutes of the fixture were played at a frantic pace. 

Neither side seemed fully comfortable, as the opposition pressed constantly and dove into hard challenges. It was within this tornado of energy that Emmanuel Más took the legs out from under Rafael Santos Borré inside the penalty area, in the third minute of the match. The referee, stunned by such an early and blatant foul, neglected to award the penalty. However, at the next stoppage he was instructed to take a look at the monitor and upon viewing, had no choice but to award a spot kick to River. Borré dispatched a clinical penalty and within seven minutes of kick off the home side found themselves leading.

The early penalty and the high winds seemed to complicated Boca’s tactical approach, as goalkeeper Esteban Andrada tried fruitlessly to play the ball long, continually thwarted by the wind. As a consequence, River striker Ábila was constantly being starved for service throughout the first half, and River frequently recovered possession in midfield. 

At the same time, River was buoyed by their early lead and the promising field position Andrada’s botched distribution afforded them. Gallardo’s side quickly settled into their three-man buildup, with central midfielder Enzo Pérez acting as the pivot in central midfield. 

As is their want, Boca were happy to sit back in a 4-1-4-1 shape and cede possession to River, but with their distribution limited, they found themselves under more pressure than they had perhaps anticipated. 

River were able to find plenty of space between Boca’s two banks of four, in large part thanks to the positions held by their fullbacks, Milton Casco and Gonzalo Montiel. On the left, Casco looked to hold an inverted position in midfield, which drew the attention of Alexis. Meanwhile, River’s winger, Igancio Fernández dropped into deeper positions on the flank to recover the ball where he then had space to drive forward and draw out the Boca defense, before ultimately shifting it off to Matías Suárez or Borré, who were wreaking havoc with their movement across the front line.

River’s buildup continually unbalanced the Boca defense.

When it was not possible to find Fernández on the left, River reverted to the right flank, where Montiel held a higher position. Aided by midfielder Exequiel Palacios, Montiel received the ball on the flank and continually found Nicolás De La Cruz at the edge of the area. Once in this space creating danger was almost too easy for the elusive De La Cruz, who drove at a Boca defense already preoccupied with Suárez and Borré’s movement.

A little bit more quality in and around the area and River could have been up by three goals at the break. The hosts enjoyed nearly 70% possession in the first half and had four shots on target. Boca did just enough with their ten clearances to keep the match close at half-time. 

The wind dies down and the match stretches out

In the second half the wind subsided and Boca had more success with their long distribution. Nonetheless, striker Ábila needed help holding up play, and therefore Alfaro elected to shift to a 4-4-2 – introducing Tevéz as the second striker in the 55th minute. Tevéz was able to hold up the ball and play off of Álbia effectively and Boca started to stretch the game out and enjoy more possession. The deviation in play to start the second half seemed to unsettle River and Boca was finally able to direct a couple shots on goal. 

Unfortunately for Alfaro’s side, the decision to stretch play left Boca susceptible on the counterattack. Throughout the second half, Boca fullback Más had been tucking into a more central position in order to mark the substitute Ignacio Scocco, who had come on for Borré and Suárez. As the match became more stretched, Más’ position grew more tenuous. Alert to this, Gallardo had De La Cruz and Fernández switch sides so the latter could lineup against the disoriented fullback on the right side of attack. 

The impact was immediate, as River broke on the counter – Scocco, Fernández and Suárez drove at the Boca center-backs and aware of Más’ more central position, Suárez was able to break toward the right flank and run onto a through ball. Más scampered to recover, but could not make up the distance on Suárez, who had a clear path to play an adroit ball to Fernández in the box. The winger made no mistake – giving River a decisive second goal in the 70th minute.  

From that point forward, Boca seemed content with self-preservation – understanding that conceding a third would effectively eliminate them from the tie. Unrelenting, River continued to press and came close again through Fernández in the 77th minute and once more thanks to a Scocco header in stoppage time. 

Frustrated, Boca youngster Nicolás Capaldo brought the match to a familiar conclusion earning a straight red card in the 96th minute – punishment for a dangerous challenge on the Casco. The 21-year-old will now miss the second leg at the Bombonero where Boca must find a way to claw back two goals. 


The win makes Gallardo the first ever River manager to collect three wins over Boca in the Copa Libertadores and he did so in style, with his side playing exciting, fluid football in front of their home support. It is unlikely River will be able to assert the same level of dominance over their opponents away from home and therefore will be thankful to have a two goal lead heading into the second leg. 

After getting off to such a hot start, a third successive Libertadores loss to their greatest rivals will, if only slightly, humble Boca. Moreover, Boca’s reliance on defense, coupled with their limited thrust up front, makes a two goal deficit all the more worrisome. The fact that the wind played such a fundamental role in restricting their offence may give Boca hope. What is more, unlike River, Alfaro has the benefit of having built up a lead atop the domestic table and should be able to give his players suitable rest in anticipation of the reverse fixture.   

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