They didn’t quite get the five goals they needed to make it absolutely certain off their own backs, but Copa Libertadores holders Boca Juniors nonetheless qualified for the knockout stages of the tournament on Tuesday night courtesy of their own three-goal victory over Maracaibo, and Colo Colo’s 1-1 draw against Atlas of Mexico. After first half goals from Gabriel Paletta and Jesús Dátolo put Boca on the brink, Juan Román Riquelme – who else? – provided the crucial goal to tip Boca’s goal difference just ahead of Colo Colo’s and send the defending champions through by the skins of their teeth.
Despite their obvious motivation going into the game, Boca had an early blow when, just five minutes in, news filtered through on radios around the stadium that Colo Colo had taken the lead in Santiago against Atlas. If that result remained, only a four-goal win would see Boca through. Just minutes later, they were on the way, taking the lead through Gabriel Paletta in just the eighth minute, the centre back rising to meet a cleverly disguised free kick from Riquelme after the playmaker had run up to it as if to shoot. Minutes later, Paletta, who’d had a recurrence of an earlier injury, had to leave the field to be replaced by Jonathan Maidana.
For most of the first half, though, Boca lacked invention, their gameplan seemingly being to punt it high and long in the general direction Rodrigo Palacio, and hope he had his shooting boots on. He didn’t – he wasted one particularly good chance about 20 minutes in, dragging it right across the six-yard box – but it mattered slightly less a minute later when Jesús Dátolo had a flash of brilliance, collecting in the left channel and drifting past a couple of challenges before coolly sidestepping Juan Carlos Henao in the visitors’ goal and tucking the ball home for Boca’s second. In the final ten minutes of the half Boca’s legs began to look weary from the high-octane exertions of the goal chasing they’d done, and Maracaibo had a couple of dangerous counters, but Mauricio Caranta, for once, looked like an undeniably brilliant goalkeeper to keep the hosts ahead at the break.
In the second half, Boca began knowing they were well on their way to the target, but also aware that a mere 2-0 win would send them out unless the match in Santiago changed. Surviving a penalty scare when Caranta got nowhere near the ball and accidentally took out one of the Venezuelan forwards, Boca had good news in the 21st minute when Atlas defender Diego Colotto bungled home a header from a corner to put his side level against Colo Colo – a score which lifted Atlas back into the top position in the group and put Boca through on goal difference if they could manage just one more goal. Flares from the stands in La Bombonera told the players things were going their way in Chile, and a few minutes on, after a lot of pressure which had been kept out by a superb second-half performance to that point from Henao between the sticks for Maracaibo, Boca’s third arrived.
The ball was played forward and Martín Palermo, on the edge of the penalty box with his back to goal, shifted it inside to Riquelme, who had already run slightly beyond the striker’s pass. No matter – Román left his right leg to trail behind and pick the ball up, brought it under his spell with a second touch, beat the defender who was closing in on him, and chipped nonchalantly over the onrushing Henao, who could only look back to watch the ball bouncing into the far corner. A brilliant goal from the man who was at the heart of Boca’s victorious campaign in last year’s Copa, to keep them in this year’s.
For the remaing 17 minutes, Boca pressured for a fourth but seemed to be fairly sure Colo Colo wouldn’t get a second against Atlas, and were perhaps let off by the fact that their faith seemed well-founded. Maracaibo might have had a goal of their own in the later stages – if they had done, that too would have dumped Boca out – and for a side long since eliminated, they did a remarkably good job of going for it just to spoil their illustrious opponents’ party. But in La Bombonera, against Boca, it was never going to happen. The champions advance, to become the sixth Argentine side in the last 16 of the 2008 Copa Libertadores, in second place from Group 3.
Check back later on Wednesday for the goals.
Atlas top the group with 11 points (3 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss), Boca are second with 10 (3 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses), Colo Colo have an identical record but scored one fewer than Boca, whilst Maracaibo bring up the rear with just two points from their six matches.