The Núñez club’s best-laid plans for 2017 were unravelled midweek in an incredible 20-minute onslaught. It was the Copa Libertadores, not the Superliga that had been identified as the main priority for the Millo, and Marcelo Gallardo’s team selections have reflected that strategy – the strongest players reserved for continental competition while domestically a variety of reserves and youngsters have been left to pick up the pieces.
As River approached half-time of Tuesday’s semi-final match against Lanús, it appeared that Gallardo’s tactics would continue to pay off as they were coasting 3-0 up on aggregate, with the extra advantage of two away goals creating an apparently insurmountable lead.
In a few short moments, however, River were sent crashing back down to earth. Burly veteran strike José Sand, vilified by some sections of the Millo support for his unsuccessful spell at the club – and a man who just two years ago was playing for hometown side Boca Unidos of Corrientes in the Nacional B – gave an inspired showing with two goals as Lanús fought back in spectacular fashion to win 4-2 on the night and make the Copa final.
There was controversy, too: the Granate benefitted from an historic VAR (video assistant referee ) call that rightly awarded the hosts a penalty with the aggregate score poised at 3-3.
River, however (and equally justifiably), were left protesting an earlier missed penalty decision from Ivan Marcone’s handball that was not referred to the video booth. If the advent of technology is merely to shift the ire of coaches and television panellists everywhere from incorrect referee decisions to when and where they should be consulting with VAR , it is hard to see much progress being made.
“It is tough when you don’t understand when it will work, if it is for both teams or for just one depending on what the result is,” Gallardo fired after the match when asked about the video replays. “There was a penalty at 2-0, a foul on Nacho Scocco that merited a red card because it was a goalscoring opportunity, as well as an attack on Rojas on the sideline, a clear attack that VAR could have told the referee about but didn’t.”
Fortunately for Gallardo and the rest of his aggrieved team there will be no assistance to referees on Sunday. That, however, should be the least of their worries. For on the other side of the Monumental will lie in wait an imperious Boca team, which have won every single one of their seven Superliga games to date with 19 goals in their favour and just one conceded. With no distractions in other competitions the Xeneize have had the luxury of focusing all their attentions on the league and have already built up a commanding six-point lead at the summit over nearest challengers San Lorenzo.
River lie further back nine points shy of their old enemies, and to have any prayer of challenging for the Superliga title at the end of the season Sunday’s game must finish in their favour. It will be no easy task. Egos are bruised around the Monumental after this week’s surrender and as long as VAR continues to dominate players’ minds they will not be in the right state to take on the pace-setters.
Three points against Boca would be a huge fillip following the Copa disaster, and might just save a Superliga season that looks destined to end in mediocrity. But Guillermo Barros Schelotto will be in no mood to give the Millonarios a break in this blockbuster fixture: if River want the win, they will have to come out fighting in front of their own fans.