Copa Libertadores final: River Plate beat Boca Juniors as Juan Quintero writes name in Superclasico history

River Plate 3-1 Boca Juniors (5-3 agg): ​It wasn’t always the highest quality match, but that’s not what this incredible occasion was about. It was about just winning, and River eventually prevailed

Miguel Delaney
Santiago Bernabeu
Monday 10 December 2018 09:38
River Plater were crowned the champions of South America with victory over Boca Juniors
River Plater were crowned the champions of South America with victory over Boca Juniors

As much as reigning over an entire continent, as well as two of the ultimate football cities, this is what the end of the world feels like. That is what this unique Copa Libertadores final defeat will mean to Boca Juniors, and that element was every bit as essential as the jubilation of just lifting that great trophy – with that great goal – for River Plate.

Delivering what was a fourth Libertadores for the club only stood alongside the consequence of denying their great rivals, although Juan Quintero will now surely stand alone as a legend in the club’s history after that supreme extra-time winner for the ages. It will also only burnish the legend of manager Marcelo Gallardo, who is talked of as Argentina’s next star manager, given it was his inspired decision to introduce Quintero as a sub.

A final like no other, played in a context and a different continent like no other, had stakes and a tension like no other. It was really inevitable that an occasion of such extremes was also pushed to such extremes – and to Europe, with the controversial decision to stage it in the Santiago Bernabeu after the violence that saw the second leg initially postponed – but that was in every sense. It was in terms of going to extra-time and a goal right at the death, in terms of drama given Leonardo Jara had so sensationally hit the post for Boca just before Gonzalo Martinez’s clincher, in terms of scarcely believable events and in terms of the quality of the goals.

The game that almost never started had quite the ending.

It made it all feel worth it after so much trouble and so many postponements, although that will not feel the case for Boca today. Whether they now appeal remains to be seen.

Even a stadium as storied as the Santiago Bernabeu, however, will have seen little like this.

This is why so many modern football stars – like Leo Messi, like Diego Simeone, like the Juventus squad – were here.

They and the stadium might have seen better quality of a football, the brilliant goals excepted, but that’s not what this incredible occasion was about it.

Dario Benedetto scored Boca’s opening goal

It was about just winning. It was about the emotion of Martinez as he celebrated that last goal to really finish it, about arms raised to the heavens in the celebration that moment started, and the bodies slumped to the ground in mourning on the other side. It was about what was happening among the fans behind both goals.

It is also perhaps fitting that this ultimate football rivalry, this duality, really came down to knife-edge moments.

And that just didn’t just apply to the passage of play from Jara to Martinez that ended the game. It was the case with the goal that really sparked it all, and a piece of play that itself would have been fitting to win any final.

Boca Juniors players celebrate Dario Benedetto’s opening goal

One of the great Boca goals will now only bring the worst possible memories for their fans.

Up until that moment just before half-time, the tension had really only served to suppress the game, reducing it to play characterised by the rawer elements of Argentine football: physicality and aggression.

It also meant there eventually had to be a release.

Lucas Pratto draws River level in the second half

The energy so suppressed by such tension was only ever going to lead to an explosion. That came in the 43rd minute, in a passage of play that can only be described as exhilarating.

It fittingly flowed – for that is the word – from the first moment where the more technical River put a proper move together, with Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada ending up stranded on the ground outside of his box. It was a true moment of danger… but not at that end. Another miscontrolled ball from River saw Boca race up the match in the type of breakneck counter that can’t but take the breath away. It wasn’t just the speed, though, but the very special nature of every element of the goal.

There was first of all the divine through ball of Nandez, its elusive trajectory bringing a despairing dive from Javier Pinola that only added to the aesthetics, and brought even more out of Benedetto. He took the move on to another level by taking a skip over the defender’s sliding body, bringing the ball on and so fluently and perfectly setting himself up in front of Franco Armani.

Gonzalo Martinez tries to deliver from the left wing

The striker momentarily had the collective emotion of the stadium at his mercy, but amid so much tension held his nerve. It was 1-0 Boca. And so wondrously.

The fact the goal was scored in front of the boisterously noisy Boca brought the entire moment to an extra level, too.

That, again, was what this was about.

Except, it wasn’t too long until they would have to sit in the same place in silence. If the goal emphasised the primary difference between the sides in how Boca are capable of scoring out of nothing, River would soon display the benefit of actually controlling the ball and the play.

They also held their nerve in a different way, as they just kept trying to do what they’re good at: putting together proper passing moves.

Quintero finds the net with a sublime finish

One of those inevitably paid off, as Gallardo’s side worked their way into the box for Pratto – of course – to finish. Now the River fans exploded, but at the other end of the pitch.

Their team by now had control so much of the play, and soon had an extra man. Perhaps the only surprise in a match that was so taut and tight that it went the distance, was that the first 90 minutes of football hadn’t seen a red card. That changed at the start of extra-time, as Boca’s Wilmar Barrios was sent off for a second booking.

There was no changing the direction of the game now, and no stopping Quintero’s brilliant shot.

Gonzalo Martinez scored River’s third and final goal

There was also to be no Boca comeback, but there was that crescendo of play. That climax to take it further as an event.

Although Jara so amazingly hit the post in the final moments, the desperation to get that equaliser only left their entire half despairingly open at the other end, leaving Martinez a clear run to make it 3-1. That led to the strike that secured it, and yet another striking image. As Martinez ran direct at goal, so many of his teammates ran in opposite directions - some to the bench, some to the fans - as they knew that was it. They knew what they were experiencing.

It was the clearest, purest of emotions: the jubilation of victory for River. The misery of defeat for Boca.

Juan Quintero celebrates scoring River’s crucial second goal

This, after all that, was what it was really about.

Whatever about moving this match across continents, it meant the world.

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