Two Resurgent South American giants will battle to break a 1–1 first-leg tie at El Monumental
Text and Photograph by Steve Cohen
[N]othing beats South American club soccer for sheer, unbridled intensity. The play itself is unlikely to inspire poets, but the atmosphere at tonight’s match, the second leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana — if it is anything like the first leg — will be extremely tense. This is not only because it is the second most prestigious club tournament in the Americas, but because the final features Argentina’s River Plate and Atlético Nacional of Medellín, Colombia — two teams who have been champions of South America but whose international glory is fading. It has been 18 years since River Plate last won the Copa Libertadores, 25 for Nacional.
With River vying for its first international trophy since its return to the Argentine first division in 2012, and an economic downturn that always heightens the feelings around a match like this, the crowd of 68,000 people in the Estadio Monumental is going to make the screaming mayhem and contraband pyrotechnics that accompanied last week’s 1–1 draw in Medellín feel like the peanut gallery at an amateur golf open.
Then again, River did beat its eternal crosstown nemesis, Boca Junior, (1–0 aggregate) in the semifinal, and Buenos Aires is still standing. So perhaps it will end, whatever the result, peacefully.
Winning away would be the crowning achievement for a Nacional side that has already gotten results in the deciding road games in each of the three previous rounds of the tournament, including a nerve-wracking 1–1 aggregate series against Sao Paulo FC decided on penalties at Morumbi Stadium. This generation of players has achieved unprecedented success domestically, winning the last three Liga Colombiana titles and 2013 Copa Colombia. But leading up to the Copa Sudamericana, it had been 12 years since Nacional, the so-called Rey de Copas (King of Cups), last competed in the final of an international championship. (That was in the first ever Copa Sudamericana final, in 2002, in which Nacional was beat easily by another Argentine team, San Lorenzo.)
What you have are two domestic champions from two resurgent regional powers. This is going to be a pit fight.
River’s drought has been less drastic in terms of years but perhaps more significant given the club’s noted history on the continent — and recent history in Argentina. The last international win for the Argentine giant was the 1996 Copa Libertadores, one year after being bounced from the same tournament by Nacional, in what was the first meeting between the north and south poles of elite South American soccer. The word “redemption” has already been thrown around quite a bit in relation to this team, which won the most recent Argentine Primera División final and thereby regained some of the dignity lost in the team’s 2011 demotion to the second division. In the middle of the second leg of the determining relegation series, River fans rioted, attempting to burn down El Monumental.
Which brings us back to tonight’s game.
What you have are two domestic champions from two resurgent regional powers. If you want to watch immaculate soccer, the closing games of the Champions League group stage will be televised earlier in the afternoon. This is going to be a pit fight.
River’s style is perfectly suited for that kind of battle. The Argentine giants defend physically, especially in the air, where center back Ramiro Funes Mori is particularly strong. From the back, it’s a deliberate, fast-paced vertical attack. Carlos Sanchez and Ariel Rojas are real threats coming out of the midfield, and Leonaldo Pisculichi, whose 35-foot knuckler in the first leg evened the score in the second half of a game Nacional had been dominating until that point, looks to jumpstart the attack with long balls or service the box from the wing. In either case, the player he and the rest of the midfield are most often looking for is striker and leading goalscorer Teofilo Gutierrez, who has proved just as imposing in a River uniform as he has mediocre in the yellow of his native Colombia.
For Nacional, the burden will be on Gutierrez’s national team compatriot, captain Alexander Mejía, in the holding midfield role. Last week, head coach Juan Carlos Osorio opened the game with five midfielders, deploying converted outside backs to fill the wide space ahead of the three-man backline. Nacional pressed high with speedy wing play, and freed up wunderkind playmaker Edwin Cardona to find holes in the middle. The first half was a tactical masterpiece, and it will be interesting to see how Osorio adjusts after an injury forced him to change tack for a less impressive second half.
The substitutes may very well be the key to a game that will be decided in large part by stamina. Nacional has played three straight years of almost impossibly heavy scheduling, and the signs of general fatigue have been showing since September. River is in the final stages of domestic play as well, but the Argentine FA gave River the week off, whereas Nacional played an important league playoff game away on Saturday, with just two days rest after the first leg, before flying seven hours across the continent.
Things could get seriously ugly for both teams, playing in front of a horde that will have its blood, one way or the other. But if you feel like taking a break from your usually scheduled European programming, it should be a lot of fun to watch from the comfort of a couch.
Steve Cohen is the editor of Colombia Reports. He lives in Medellín, Colombia, and tweets under @SD_Cohen.