Back in the Saddle Again - We take a look at the experienced River Plate ahead of what could be Marcelo Gallardo’s last rodeo.

The best and most consistent team in South America over the last five years, River Plate arrive in Lima as defending champions. The team is almost identical to last year in style and in personnel and they pose an imposing challenge for Jorge Jesus and his men from Rio. Where are their strengths and do they have any weaknesses?

Manager and tactics:

One of River Plate’s great players, Marcelo Gallardo is already a managerial legend at Los Millionarios winning 10 trophies in five years, including two Libertadores and a Copa Sudamericana. Should he pick up a third Libertadores this weekend he will join the exclusive list of two other Argentine managers to win more than twice; Carlos Bianchi (who has one with Velez Sarsfield and three with Boca Juniors,) and Osvaldo Zubeldía (whose Estudiantes team picked up three in a row at the end of the 60s).

Whatever happens on Saturday expect more offers to come in from clubs around the world for Gallardo to take over the reigns there.

An excellent and diminutive midfielder in his day, this River Plate team have total respect for ‘el muñeco’ (the doll) who likes to play with the ball as much as possible, moving it quickly with well coordinated attacks giving the opposition a lot to think about and little time to react. Once they lose the ball they press hard in the opposing half to win it back quickly. In fact the whole team press and play with real intensity in an effort to suffocate their rivals and then make them chase the game when in possession.

River are a constant physical presence, snapping at the other team’s heels. They will need to ride the line perfectly between making it uncomfortable for Flamengo and not giving away fouls and picking up yellow cards. Discipline and a cool head will be key for both teams and you’d have to say the Argentines probably have the upper hand here.

Gallardo’s midfield is superbly balanced, arguably the best in the competition, Jorge Jesus and Flamengo will have a real job on their hands to keep control of the game in the middle of the park. River switch between quick exchanges of short passes from Exequiel Palacios, Nacho Fernandez, Nicolás De La Cruz and the advanced full-backs and using Enzo Perez to play longer passes into the spaces wide of, or behind, the defensive line. Perez has a long pass completion rate of 73% in this year’s competition so far and he will be looking to reach the paths of River's spritely strike pairing of Rafael Borre and Matias Suarez. De La Cruz also represents danger as one of the tournament’s best dribblers. Another boon for Gallardo is that Perez played under Jorge Jesus at Benfica and his inside knowledge will be indispensable in planning for every eventuality.

Probable Lineup:

It’s not uncommon for Gallardo to make last minute tactical changes to surprise the opposition so look out for that, but he usually prefers a 4-1-3-2 which might look like this:

River likely XI

Key Player:

Exequiel Palacios

AFP Exequiel Palacios River Copa Libertadores

Being monitored by Real Madrid and other European giants, Palacios is the most exciting talent in River’s midfield. 

Tall and stylish, Palacios is usually deployed in centre-midfield in a more advanced role, supporting attacks with his quick distribution and attacking runs. In last year’s final against Boca Juniors he was used on the right of a midfield three in the first-leg and then in the more traditional ‘10’ role in the second-leg where River ran out 3-1 victors and clinched the title in Madrid. Palacios was sensational and a constant attacking threat in both games.

He knows how to win a big final and he will be critical to River’s chances of getting their hands on the trophy. Flamengo’s centre-mid pairing of Arão and Gerson will have to make sure he is not given time and space to play those decisive passes.

One to watch:

Juan Fernando Quintero

Bursting onto the scene for Columbia at the 2014 World Cup, Quintero was hailed as the next big thing to come out of Colombia. But after struggling at Porto and the Rennes he moved back home to Medellin, before arriving at River.

Still finding his way back after yet another injury he will be used as an option from the bench. His introduction would represent real danger for Flamengo, he is deadly from set pieces as he demonstrated against Japan in last year’s World Cup and again when he received a Puskas nomination for his superlative effort against Racing earlier this year.

His wand of a left foot will also be used to play dangerous balls over the top of Flamengo’s high defensive line for their pacey strikers to run onto. It’s probably more a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ he comes on. Flamengo will need a contingency plan to contain his creative flair.

Potential weakness:

River Plate are a very well drilled and experienced side having been together under the same manager for a couple of seasons and already beaten their bitter rivals, Boca Juniors, in the final last year. It will be hard to exploit chinks in their armour but there are two possible areas of weakness in this team. One is the space left behind the full-backs as they push up into midfield and the other is their relatively poor defence of set pieces.

Both Milton Casco and Gonzalo Montiel push high when River have the ball and can often be seen crossing from the byline or even entering the opposition penalty area to join attacks. Perez drops to provide support in defence. This leaves spaces out wide to be exploited by Bruno Henrique and Giorgian de Arrascaeta.

One of River’s strengths, their mobility and pace, also becomes a weakness as they only have three players over 1.80m and often have difficulty defending crosses and long balls in their own penalty area.

In the semi-final second leg, Boca Juniors demonstrated how uncomfortable River can be made to look when faced with high balls and set-pieces, in fact, 50% of balls lofted into the River penalty area currently result in shots on goal which is quite an alarming statistic for Gallardo and his men. Despite his tally of seven in the competition, Gabriel Barbosa can be profligate in front of goal and needs to be in the zone to turn these scraps into a numerical advantage on the night.

Impact options from the bench:

Lucas Pratto River Plate Paranaense Recopa Sudamericana 30052019

Lucas Pratto is an experienced goal scorer at this level and was crucial in last year’s win, scoring one in each leg of the final against Boca. He offers something different as well; at 1.87m Prato is bigger and meaner than the starting forward pairing and his movement in the box is decisive. He’s a seasoned pro who may just be there to nab a last minute winner.

Quintero, as discussed above will be a genuine concern for Flamengo when he comes on.