Preview: Superclásico Semifinal on tap as River Plate & Boca Juniors meet again

After the history making final in 2018, what will Boca Juniors and River Plate do for an encore in 2019?

That is the question on the minds of millions of fans worldwide as the two biggest clubs in Argentina get set to square off once again in the CONMEBOL Libertadores, this time in the semifinals, with the winner of the tie advancing to the 2019 CONMEBOL Libertadores final in Santiago. 

River-Boca is a rivalry that needs no introduction. Mere friendlies between the two have a reputation for being feisty. A meeting now in the Libertadores semifinals, after the historic encounter that was the 2018 Libertadores final, promises nothing short of drama. 

Two-legged ties promote a certain style of play, one that Boca in their current form look well-equipped to carry out. River meanwhile have been flying lately, pouring in the goals, and have the history of strength in the Libertadores under manager Marcelo Gallardo. 

Since returning from the Copa America break, River have lost just twice, a 1-0 defeat to Talleres with a heavily rotated squad ahead of the Libertadores quarterfinals and a 2-1 setback against Vélez at home in September. A 4-0 win away to Huracán impresses, as does the 6-1 thumping of Racing back in August. 

Gallardo’s biggest question going into tonight’s match at El Monumental appears to be whether to set up with just three defenders at the back, a change from his preferred system, or to stick with the tried and true 4-4-2 that has brought River so much success. That decision is expected to depend on the health of the Uruguayan Nicolás De La Cruz, who was fundamental to River’s quarterfinal success against Cerro Porteño. If De La Cruz can go, expect the 4-4-2 from Gallardo. 

Regardless of formation, Franco Armani will start between the sticks, flanked in defense by Gonzalo Montiel, Lucas Martínez Quarta and Milton Casco. Gallardo faces a question between Javier Pinola and Paulo Díaz to complete the defense. River’s midfield should consist of Nacho Fernández, Exequiel Palacios, Enzo Pérez, and De La Cruz, if fit, while Matías Suárez and Rafael Santos Borré headline the attack. 

Missing out due to injury are Lucas Pratto, who could yet feature off the bench tonight, and the always exciting Juan Fernando Quintero, who could feature in the same role in the second leg at La Bombonera. 

When River and Boca met in September at El Monumental, just days after a Superclássico semifinal was confirmed, neither side seemed willing to break out of its shell. Neither wanting to make the first mistake. A 0-0 draw with few clear-cut chances was the result, and that type of match could once again be on offer tonight.

River under Gallardo have made a habit out of playing tight first legs in Libertadores knockout action before expanding themselves a bit more in the second leg to go through. It’s a formula that has worked, and one that probably won’t change tonight. 

Gustavo Alfaro’s Boca Juniors meanwhile are a picture of security at the back. Since returning from the Copa America break. Boca have conceded just two goals, one to Almagro in the Copa Argentina, and one this weekend with a rotated XI against Newell’s Old Boys. A heavy part of the game plan against River over the two legs will surely be to protect their own goal. While it sounds simple to say, no side in South America does that better than Boca at the moment. 

Esteban Andrada will start in goal, and is expected to be flanked in defense by Lisandro López, Carlos Izquierdoz and Emmanuel Más. At right back, Alfaro could opt for either Marcelo Weingandt or Julio Buffarini. In midfield, Nicolás Capaldo, Iván Marcone and the in-form Alexis Mac Allister should start, with the other spots up for grabs between Sebastián Villa, Emanuel Reynoso and Mauro Zárate. In attack. Alfaro possesses many options, from the more experienced Ramon Ábila and Carlos Tevez to the young upstart Jan Hurtado. 

Ábila is the favorite to start in attack, particularly given his ability to hold up play and potentially spring Boca on what could be dangerous counter-attacking opportunities. 

The elephant in the room when it comes to tonight’s first leg is the weather. Rain, potentially heavy, is in the forecast today tonight in Buenos Aires, and that could play a part in what is already expected to be a fairly defensive encounter. Another piece of information worth noting is the potential for suspension due to yellow card accumulation. For River, just De La Cruz sits one yellow from the limit, but Boca have three players at risk of missing the second leg should they collect a yellow tonight: Weigandt, Capaldo and Ábila. 

Expect plenty of tension, with both teams well aware that a single mistake could shift the entirety of the tie. Chance may be hard to come by, so those that they fall to will need to be clinical. Borré and Ábila are talented, but have struggled with consistency over the past months. A good night for either of them could lift them into the history of their respective clubs. 

A drama-filled night awaits at El Monumental, with another one on the agenda for later this month at La Bombonera. It's one of football’s greatest derbies, on one of its biggest stages, you won’t want to miss it.