Tim Vickery’s Notes From South America: River Plate Playing Double Or Quits In Club World Cup
Had Boca Juniors won the Copa Libertadores final just over a week ago, they would have flown back from Madrid to Buenos Aires to celebrate with their fans, before making the journey to the Arab Emirates for the Club World Cup. River Plate have done things differently. They will only fly home once the Club World Cup is completed, leaving them open to very different scenarios.
In the best case, they will have managed to improve on beating Boca in the biggest ever clash between the historical rivals, covering themselves in more glory by seeing off Real Madrid and capturing the global crown.
This is the dream of all South American champions- and it has proved perhaps the most powerful force in the 14 year history of this tournament in its current format. South America seems to give it more attention than anywhere else, precisely because it offers the annual possibility of putting one over the glamorous winners of the Champions League.
This year always looked interesting from a South American point of view. Real Madrid are clearly not the same side as the one that beat Liverpool at the end of May. They are going through an awkward transition and seem unusually vulnerable.
So following up the win over Boca with another against Real would carry River’s fans to footballing heaven. A victory over Kashima Antlers of Japan, who face Real on Wednesday, would lose some shine, but would still be wildly celebrated.
The Europeans, though, have always cruised through their semi final. The South Americans, meanwhile, have always had a tough time. Since the current format was adopted in 2005, not once has there been a comfortable passage through to the final for the Libertadores champions – and there have even been a couple of defeats.
Losing on Tuesday to local boys Al Ain would rank high on the list of historic humiliations. It would, undoubtedly, be the worst case scenario.
A narrow defeat to Real Madrid in the final would allow River Plate to return home with dignity intact – and much more to celebrate than to lament. A comfortable win for the Spaniards would take some of the gloss from the triumph against Boca. Failing even to make the final would be a disaster – one which would make the 3-1 win over Boca look like a domestic encounter of no great importance on the world stage.
River Plate are, of course, strong favourites against Al Ain. It is all but unthinkable that the South American champions might lose to a team which at one point found itself 3-0 down to Wellington of New Zealand. But Al Ain are on a roll – and could easily have beaten African champions Esperance by a far more convincing margin than Saturday’s 3-0 drubbing. If they can show similar pace and trickery on the counter attack, they could cause River some problems. And in addition to their own fans in the stadium, they will surely be able to count on the backing of millions of Boca Juniors supporters.
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