Boca Juniors are champions of Argentina — and they owe it to the goalkeeper of River Plate, their great rivals.
This league campaign has been so full of ebbs and flows that it could not have fittingly come to a quiet end. After 26 rounds of the Wacky Races, the final round could not be a mere lap of honour for the victors.
Six teams had been in contention. One by one they all fell by the wayside, until just two were left, and on the last Sunday, Boca Juniors led Racing by a point.
Both sides were at home, and by some strange quirk of fate, each met the historical rivals of the other. Boca were up against Independiente, while Racing faced River Plate.
This led to an immediate question: Would Independiente or River bother too much? There was nothing in the game for them. Why sweat their way through the last game of the season when a win would only benefit their rivals? Perhaps, then, the opposition would go on early holiday — which clearly worked to the benefit of Boca. That one point lead meant that Boca’s fate was in their own hands; win — against opponents of doubtful motivation — and they would be champions.
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Thankfully, for the honour of football, neither Independiente nor River Plate had read that script. What followed were two hard fought matches, played at the same time, with the destiny of the title still in question deep into stoppage time.
There was one enticing possibility — that the teams would finish level on points, thus necessitating a midweek playoff to decide matters. It seemed unlikely. The only way it could happen was for Boca to lose while Racing drew.
But the chance became real in the first half, when Boca conceded a penalty, coolly converted for Independiente by Leandro Fernandez. With Racing and River still goalless, the playoff was on. But just two minutes later Boca were level, a free kick whipped in by Oscar Romero glanced inside the far corner by Pol Fernandez.
Boca’s has been a campaign full of narrow victories — finishing a 27 game season with a goal difference of only +6. They have suffered from injuries — defender Marcos Rojo and centre-forward Dario Benedetto were missing this game and key Colombian striker Sebastian Villa is still feeling his way back from a layoff. He was introduced at half-time and quickly made his presence felt, banging a superb free kick inside the near post. Boca were ahead, and surely the second half would turn into a victory procession.
Soon afterwards, though, Matias Rojas scored for Racing from the penalty spot in their game — a reminder that Boca might need to retain that lead. With 10 minutes to go, River Plate equalised. But almost simultaneously Independiente were also level, a corner from the right headed home by young substitute Nicolas Vallejo.
The finish line was in sight, and suddenly all possible outcomes were still possible. If Independiente were to score again, then Boca and Racing would indeed have to play off. But if Racing were to get another, then the title could be theirs. And, with the final whistle drawing near, they were awarded another penalty. It looked a soft one — and had things worked out differently it would have proved very controversial. But the referee pointed to the spot. Rojas, though, had already been substituted. Racing had to find another penalty taker for the most important kick of the year. Both games came to a halt. News reached Boca’s stadium, where a pause for an injury allowed the crowd to follow the events across Buenos Aires by radio. Up stepped Jonathan Galvan.
He was determined not to go high and run into the risk of having adrenaline ruin his calculations and take the kick over the bar. So he carefully struck low to the keeper’s right. And Franco Armani, Argentina goalkeeper in the last World Cup and one of the back ups this time, guessed right and plunged to make the block.
The chance was still there on the rebound. But with the goal gaping, Nico Oroz hit too high. The moment, and the title, had gone. River Plate’s keeper had handed Boca an early Christmas present. Boca’s fans could breathe a sigh of relief, and then get back to singing their side over the line.
They had more to celebrate before the final whistle. Racing still needed a goal. By now ragged and desperate, they poured forward and left themselves open at the back. River took advantage with a late winner. Boca’s 2-2 draw with Independiente was enough to give them the title by a two point margin.