River Plate will represent South America in the Club World Cup, but on the evidence of this defeat, Barcelona will have little to fear.
Barcelona had to dig deep against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, but came from behind to win with goals from two of their three man South American strikeforce. Three more points, then, for the European champions. But on the either side of the Atlantic, in the land of Leonel Messi’s birth, it was not such good news for their South American counterparts.
River Plate went down 1-0 at home to Boca Juniors in the Buenos Aires ‘super-clasico.’ Opportunity knocked for River when they took the field. Leaders San Lorenzo had been beaten earlier in the day. A win against their old rivals would have left River Plate six points behind with a game in hand. Instead, though, they are now 11 points off the lead and all but out of the title race – with Boca leapfrogging San Lorenzo to take over at the top of the table.
It was a result, then, with considerable bearing on the domestic championship. And a performance that does not bode well for this year’s Club World Cup.
The idea of uniting the club champions of all the various continents is entirely valid, and it has been heartwarming to see the way that Auckland City from Oceania have used their exposure to the competition to develop their game. But this is a tournament which suffers from a huge problem – the inescapable fact that globalisation has concentrated the best players from the four corners of the world in a handful of western European clubs. This is a challenge to the world game and to the future of this particular tournament, since the gulf between Europe and the rest of the world is made embarrassingly apparent on an annual basis.
The force of tradition means that it is customary to look to South America to provide a challenge to the winners of the Champions League – especially as the competition undoubtedly means more to the Copa Libertadores holders (though the southern Europeans appear to give it more value than those from the north).
There have been some South American successes – Sao Paulo in 2005, Internacional the following years and Corinthians in 2012 took the title back to Brazil. But all were single goal victories won largely on the break, following a tactical plan which acknowledged the superiority of the opposition. It is very different from the days, only some 15 years ago, when the South Americans looked forward to the annual showdown with the Europeans to show off some technique. A replay of those games would provide a fascinating spectacle. The way it is now – either a comfortable European win or a grinding, backs to the wall triumph for the underdogs – is unlikely to attract the neutral.
And there is no evidence to suggest that this year’s Club World Cup will be any different. In a dull game against Boca, the paucity of River’s football was sadly striking. A club with a tradition of style now seem to have surrendered to mere pragmatism. Their only attacking idea against Boca was to hit hopeful crosses in for the deft aerial skills of centre forward Lucas Alario. With the exception of two of his headers, River never threatened the Boca goal.
In a possible final with Barcelona, River would presumably have the chance to launch their strikers behind the opposing defensive line. But how would they cope with Barcelona’s possession? This is a worry. In the decisive second leg of the Libertadores final, River’s midfield enforcer Leo Ponzio crunched in the tackles with a severity that would test the patience of many referees. Against Boca he really should have been sent off on the half hour mark. Indeed, shortly afterwards he was whipped off by coach Marcelo Gallardo to save him from a red card.
Last year San Lorenzo attempted to stop Real Madrid in the Club World final by opening up the tool box and letting the tackles fly. Indeed, it is hard to see what else they could do against rivals who outgunned them to an absurd degree. On the evidence of the weekend, with Neymar and Messi scoring for Barcelona while River huffed and puffed to no effect, the prospects for this year’s final do not look any better.