Over the last two Tuesdays, 2016 Argentine table-toppers Lanús took on compatriots River Plate for a place in the final of South America’s premier club competition, the Copa Libertadores. River were looking to make it the Libertadores final for the second time in three years, after winning the 2015 edition, whilst Lanús had never previously been beyond the quarter finals of the tournament. The stage was set for a fine encounter, but few could have predicted just how exciting it would be.
River were the favourites going into the tie and in the first leg, played at their Estadio Monumental home, showed why. To a backdrop of deafening noise, spectacular pyrotechnics and a magnificent mosaic in the stands, they took the game to Lanús from the off. The visitors, pinned back in their own half, could only hold firm in their well-defined 4-1-4-1 defensive shape and try to soak up the pressure.
River´s attacking midfield pair of Nacho Fernandez and Gonzalo Martinez squirmed and wriggled between the lines trying to find space to work in and feed centre-forward Ignacio Scocco. There were, however, few clear-cut chances and River’s closest first-half effort come from centre back Javier Pinola, who struck the post from 25 yards.
In the second period the pattern was much the same, with Lanus offering little threat of scoring an away goal whilst River monopolised possession. The introduction of young Uruguayan creator Nicolas De La Cruz after 65 minutes gave River an extra cutting edge and it was he who supplied the pass leading to the deadlock-breaking goal in the 81st minute.
His ball found its way to Martinez, whose low, hard shot was parried by the goalkeeper straight into the path of the predatory Scocco. The ex-Sunderland man made no mistake. It gave River a well-deserved lead to take to Lanus’ La Fortaleza (The Fortress) stadium for this week’s second leg.
Lanús, looking to come from behind, were now forced onto the front foot and could have levelled the tie as early as the sixth minute when Maxi Velazquez directed a header just wide of the upright. With their new-found adventurousness, though, came the danger of the River counter and this was perfectly demonstrated when Nacho Fernandez made a darting run in behind a poorly positioned Lanús back line, drawing a ridiculously ill-advised challenge from centre-back Diego Braghieri. The referee pointed to the spot and Scocco did the honours, tucking away his eighth goal of this year’s competition.
River doubled their lead on the night just a few minutes later, meaning that the home side would need four to advance. The goal came as the result of a deliciously whipped Martinez free-kick, one of those that the slightest of touch will take into the goal or that could creep in at the far post by itself if not dealt with by the ‘keeper. Nobody could quite reach it on the way through so Esteban Andrada dived down to his right and pushed it away. Young River right-back Gonzalo Montiel was the first to react and fired the ball home. The boisterous home support was silent. Bold River fans started to book their plane tickets to Porto Alegre for the now almost-certain final against Grêmio.
Ironically it was at this point that Lanús really started to play. At their best they are a marvellously fluid passing unit and towards the end of the half central midfielder Ivan Marcone began to get on the ball, spraying passes to their dangerous wide forwards, Lautaro Acosta and Alejandro Silva. Jose Sand, the veteran Grenate number 9, gave the fans a little to shout about again just before the break when he fired home from an Acosta pass, beating German Lux at his near post.
It was still too much to come back against such adept opposition though, wasn’t it?
Lanús came out for the final 45 of the 180-minute tie as if their lives, not simply qualification for the final, rested on the result and almost immediately Sand scored his second to send a ripple of belief around the ground. It was a smart right-footed finish after some very scruffy build-up play and poor defending, but the game was well and truly back on.
The impetus was with Lanús and the third goal soon followed. Some terrific work in the channel from Sand was followed by a low Acosta cross, giving Alejandro Silva an unmissable chance to convert.
The chase was on for the game-turning fourth and by this point it seemed a matter of time, such was the swing in momentum. In the most traditional of stadiums the game ended up being decided by the most modern of technologies. Video Assistant Referee had been introduced to the Libertadores just for the semis and final. In the 69th minute of this game, it proved pivotal.
Nicholas Pasquini’s shirt was clearly pulled as he tried to run onto a through-ball into the area, but the referee did not see it and nobody in the ground seemed sure whether Pasquini had even been onside. The television was consulted, and the referee was informed: onside and penalty. He pointed to the spot. Alejandro Silva converted with the calmness of someone having a kick-about with their friends in the park. If the stadium had a roof, it would have been projected towards the stratosphere.
River look winded, like a boxer floored by a brutal body blow. They eventually managed pull themselves up off the canvas and get the ball forwards, towards the Lanús goal, forcing Andrada into an impressively athletic save with minutes to go. But it was too little, too late. The home team had completed one of the most spectacular comebacks this competition has seen.
It was a triumph of will power and determination, and the Lanús manager Jorge Almiron, who has been in charge of the team for two years and overseen a period of unprecedented success, said of his players, “Any other team would have surrendered, my boys did not.”
More than that, though, it was a triumph of quality football and a clear, positive idea of how to play the game. Lanús are the team that have exchanged the highest number of passes in this year’s Libertadores and the team that have had the most possession of the ball. Since Almiron’s arrival they have been true to their passing, attacking style and it was that clarity, sense of mutual understanding and togetherness that allowed them to turn Tuesday’s game on its head.
In the final they will face a Grêmio side that, under the direction of Renato Portaluppi, likes to control the ball and is equally capable of some wonderful passages of play. It promises to be a fascinating tie. The first leg will be in Porto Alegre on the 22nd November and the second in Buenos Aires on the 29th.