BOCA JUNIORS face the break-up of their team for the second season running despite successfully defending the Libertadores Cup in a penalty shoot-out with Cruz Azul of Mexico.
Coach Carlos Bianchi’s third triumph in the competition was tempered by the fact that defenders Jorge Bermudez, Anibal Matellanand Hugo Ibarra are off to Olympiakos, Schalke and FC Porto respectively. Marcelo Delgado, who scored the only goal in the first leg of the Final, is set to join Atletico Madrid, while influential playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme is due to move to Barcelona when Argentina’s opening championship finishes in December.
Last season, following their Libertadores Cup victory over Palmeiras of Brazil, Boca sold five key men – defenders Walter Samuel and Adolfo Arruabarrena, veteran Jose Basualdo, Gustavo Barros Schelotto and Martin Palermo, the latter easily worth a goal a game.
It all adds up to another rebuilding programme for Bianchi, who first won the Libertadores with Velez Sarsfield in 1994. Coincidentally, each of his triumphs has been decided via a penalty shoot-out.
Bianchi is now Argentina’s most successful club coach, having won six domestic League titles – three each with Velez and Boca – and the three continental crowns. He also joins Osvaldo Zubeldia (who took Estudiantes de La Plata to three successive Libertadores Cups from 1968 to 1970) as the only men to have won the Libertadores three times.
This year’s Boca team may have been younger and more inexperienced, but they still had their Colombian backbone of goalkeeper Oscar Cordoba, Bermudez and midfielder MauricioSerna, as well as the Argentinian League’s outstanding player, Riquelme. Their teamwork was better, faster and more exciting to watch.
To retain the trophy, Boca were involved in return trips totalling nearly 32,000 miles – to Santa Cruz (Bolivia), Cali and Barranquilla (Colombia), Calama (Chile), Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and Mexico.
Boca got through their first round group easily enough,losing only to Deportivo Cali in the last game when they had already qualified and sent a reserve team. They then struggled past Colombia’s Atletico Junior, 4-3 on aggregate, in the second round, before sailing through the quarter-finals with a 4-0 victory over Brazil’s Vasco da Gama.
In the semis, Boca faced old adversariesPalmeiras, who had also been weakened by the sale of players. The Argentinians almost did not travel to Sao Paulo for the first leg after the squad threatened to strike in a bid to claim money owed to themby the club. The matter was eventually resolved and after two 2-2 draws the tie went to penalties. As in the Final, Cordoba was the hero, saving twice as Boca won the shoot-out 3-2.
The two legs of the Final drew capacity crowds – 110,000 at the Azteca in Mexico City and 60,000 at the Bombonera in Buenos Aires. In the first leg, in Mexico, Boca played a cautious game and were content to hold the Mexicans at bay.
Cruz Azul, the first Mexican team to reach the Final, had more of the game but Cordoba was unbeatable, while Riquelme orchestrated the counter-attacks. From one, Delgado scored the only goal five minutes from time. Boca looked to have the trophy firmly in their grasp but in Buenos Aires, with Riquelme – playing despite injury – having an ineffective game, Cruz Azul were the better side and fully deserved Juan Francisco Palencia’s 42nd-minute goal which levelled the aggregate score.
The Mexicans then came within a whisker of a sensational triumph when Jose Cardozo hit a post.
But in the shoot-out, Boca held their nerve better. Cruz Azul missed three spot-kicks, Cordoba saved one, and Bianchi’s men took it 3-1. Victory earned Boca œ2million in prize money and they will now defend theWorld Club Cup against European champions Bayern Munich in Tokyo on November 26.
The Libertadores Cup’s new format this year proved a bonus. Previously a laborious group phase eliminated just five of the 21 teams. Now half the field of 32 faced knockout, leading to more attractive, attacking football right from the start. After the group phase it was home and away straight knockout all the way to the Final – giving the fans a format much easier to understand than the convoluted European Champions League.
All four Brazilian teams – Palmeiras, Vasco da Gama, Cruzeiro, and Sao Caetano – got through the first round, with only the latter, a Second Division team who had reached last year’s Joao Havelange Cup Final in Brazil, struggling.
Other sides gambled too much in switching between weakened and full teams in their domestic League and Cup obligations. One Argentinian club, San Lorenzo, concentrated on their national championship, which they later won, while Rosario Central stuck to the Libertadores Cup and were surprise semi-finalists, but finished bottom of the Argentinian League.
Rosario reached the last four with one of the outstanding displays of the tournament, in the quarter-final return leg away to America of Colombia. Juan Pizzi, the Argentina-born former Spanish international, scored twice in the last two minutes after they trailed 3-1 on aggregate. The Argentinians eventually went through on penalties.
There were two nasty incidents during the tournament. The match between Deportes Concepcion and San Lorenzo in Chile finished in a free-for-all among the players, while a linesman was attacked by fans and Bianchi hit on the head by a stone during the Palmeiras-Boca semi-final in Sao Paulo.
Generally, though, blanket TV coverage reduced scope for the kind of intimidation and unsporting behaviour which previously blighted the competition.