River Plate against Boca Juniors is a clash that always transcends Argentina. The Buenos Aires derby is one of football's great occasions, rich in the history of rivalry, exhilarating in its colour and passion, of obvious interest to fans all across the globe.
In South America, Boca-River has set the tone for many of the other big local derbies across the continent. The sociological research shows little difference in the fan bases of the two clubs. But on the level of symbols, there is a clear conflict. Boca stayed put in the cramped and sweaty working class docklands neighbourhood. River moved out to the snoory suburbs more than 80 years ago. The dynamic, so strong in South American societies, is between the have and the have-nots -- played out either in the tightly crammed environment of Boca's Bombonera stadium, or -- as on Sunday -- in River's more spacious Monumental.
Every game between these two old rivals is an event. And this one is especially intriguing even if on its face there is little at stake. The match comes in the early stages of the season. The new format of the first half of the year -- clumsily entitled 'the cup of the league,' works as follows: the 28 teams are divided into two groups, and at the end of 14 rounds the top four from each group go through to the knockout stages. This is the seventh round. River top their group. In the other group, Boca are third. A defeat on Sunday, then, would not be a disaster for either side. Both will still be in the running to reach the quarterfinals.
But there is a bigger picture. The group phase of the Copa Libertadores kicks off in less than three weeks. A loud cry has gone up; who can challenge the Brazilian teams? Argentina used to think of the competition as almost its by right. But Brazil has taken over, with three wins in a row -- the last two finals were all-Brazilian affairs. Now that financial gaps are opening up, the most likely candidates to trouble the likes of Flamengo and Sao Paulo would seem to be River and Boca -- who contested the infamous 2018 final, the last year before the Brazilian clubs seized control.
Sunday's game serves as a measuring rod for Argentine pretentions in this year's Libertadores. This is especially true for River Plate. Many thought the extraordinary reign of coach Marcelo Gallardo -- nearly eight years and counting -- would come to an end last year when he finally got his hands on a domestic league title. His best work has come in the Libertadores. After a six-year absence from the competition, Gallardo took them to victory in 2015 -- and to the unforgettable win over Boca in Madrid three years later.
Since then, though, Gallardo has found it increasingly tough to take on the Brazilians. Vanquished in an epic Copa Libertadores final by Flamengo in 2019, his team were narrowly beaten semifinalists in 2020 -- and comfortably ousted quarterfinalists in 2021. Amid links to European clubs, it would appear that Gallardo has agreed to stay at River in return for the promise of a squad strong enough to do battle with the Brazilians.
And River have gone shopping. At least for the first half of the year they retain the services of the wonderful Manchester City-bound striker Julian Alvarez. He is forming an interesting partnership with Ezequiel Barco, on loan from Atlanta United FC. Returning from China is Colombian playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero, often used off the bench to wave his magic wand against tiring defenders. With flying full-backs supplying width, and plenty of quick passing moves in the final third, Gallardo's River are frequently a delight to watch.
But can they defend against quality opponents? This is the big question left hanging over their Libertadores campaign. The attacking balance of the team means that a defensive vulnerability exists. This sector has been reinforced as well, with the loan signing of one experienced centre-back, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez from Inter Miami CF, and the acquisition of another, the talented but injury prone Emmanuel Mammana from Zenit St Petersburg.
The early season evidence would seem to indicate that there will still be defensive problems this year. River have clearly been working hard on pressing to win back the ball as soon as they lose possession. But once that first press is beaten, the defence can be exposed -- and on Sunday they will face a fascinating test.
Under new coach, and former club idol Sebastian Battaglia, Boca have had an uneven start to the year. There are hopes, though, that last weekend's 1-0 win over Estudiantes has steadied the ship. That is certainly the message coming out of the club. Instead of the traditional blue and yellow, Boca wore all yellow shirts in that game -- and seem set to stay with the same strip on Sunday. There are doubts about the fitness of centre forward Dario Benedetto.
The key man, though, could be Colombian winger Sebastian Villa. If, as expected, Boca sit deep and wait for the moment to launch the counter attack, then Villa is their principal weapon. As quick and strong as a racehorse, Villa is a notch above anything River have faced this year, and will be good preparation for dealing with the type of attacking ability that the Brazilian clubs will throw at them in the Libertadores. And there could be a run off the bench for tricky little teenage winger Ezequiel Zeballos, one of the brightest things to happen to Boca this year.
It may be true that a cautious cover up style from Boca will have a better chance against the Brazilians than the more extravagant swagger of River Plate. The test here is whether they can replace centre-back Carlos Izquerdoz, a long term injury casualty. On Sunday, former Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo will probably be partnered by the volatile Peruvian Carlos Zambrano. If they can hold River at bay, this will boost morale for the coming battles with the Brazilians.
The scoreline is always the main thing when River Plate face Boca Juniors. But this time there are more than local bragging rights at stake. This match is the best Libertadores preparation that both sides could have wished for. Come the final whistle on Sunday there should be some interesting evidence on whether the Argentine giants have what it takes to break Brazil's South American stranglehold.