With LDU Quito already lying in wait in the quarter-final after knocking out Estudiantes on Tuesday night, River Plate and San Lorenzo met in the Monumental to decide their all-Argentine last sixteen tie and, in a phenomenal match, it was San Lorenzo, the only one of Argentina’s ‘Big Five’ never to have won the Copa Libertadores, who progressed after it finished 2 – 2 in El Monumental. San Lorenzo found themselves two goals and two men down shortly after half time, but rallied to go through in extraordinary fashion.
Trailing 2-1 from the first leg in the Nuevo Gasómetro last week, it was inevitable that River came out all guns blazing at the start, and they’d already had one superb goal disallowed (correctly) for offside by the time they levelled the aggregate score just eleven minutes in, Matías Abelairas claiming it after his right-wing free kick evaded everyone on its way into the net. That goal, which put River ahead in the tie on the away goals rule, obliged San Lorenzo to come out in search of one of their own, and with Diego Simeone’s naturally offensive gameplan River were never going to try and just sit on their lead.
There developed a first half in which the ball swung rapidly from one end to the other, but the main incident was the sending off of Diego Rivero just before half time for taking out an opponent with a horrible challenge. Down by one goal and one man, San Lorenzo were in need of inspiration at the break. Ramón Díaz didn’t appear to have provided it, because in the second half they didn’t improve much at first. River soaked up what pressure the visitors could muster and countered dangerously, and they got their reward when, an hour into the match, Radamel Falcao García chased a ball over the top into the San Lorenzo box and was elbowed in the face by Jonathan Bottinelli. The defender saw red for the foul and River, of course, had a penalty, which Sebastián Abreu comfortably tucked away to put his side 2-0 up on the night against ten men, 3-2 ahead on aggregate, and through the last eight with half an hour remaining.
Or, so they must have thought. San Lorenzo, now under more of an obligation to attack than ever before, came roaring back and got their first lucky break when a free kick went their way on the left wing. The ball went across and Gonzalo Bergessio was there to stab it over the line. Now 3-3 on aggregate, and with away goals also level, the tie was heading for penalties. Just four minutes later, San Lornenzo won a corner which former River favourite Andrés D’Alessandro floated in and Bergessio again rose above his marker to send a header past Juan Pablo Carrizo which made it 2-2 on the night, 4-3 on aggregate and, crucially, left River needing two more goals in the final quarter of an hour due to the away goal rule.
The response from River was wave after wave of attacks which got closer and closer to a goal, but which agonisingly never quite reached fruition. Diego Buonanotte had a penalty appeal turned down, then minutes later, the linesman flagged for a San Lorenzo goal kick when his shot had clearly hit a defender on its way over the bar. Mauro Rosales, sent on for Augusto Fernández when River were 2-0 up and coasting, flashed a shot across goal which, at the far post, Falcao failed by inches to connect with. When Rosales powered a bullet of a header into the net in the 88th minute, River’s players barely bothered to celebrate. It was as if they already knew the linesman was flagging for Abelairas’s fractional offside as he ran on to deliver the cross.
So the week that was to define the seasons of several of Argentina’s title-challenging clubs is complete. At the end, Estudiantes and River are the clear losers – both lost in the league at the weekend to allow the chasing pack closer, and both are now out of the Copa to boot – whilst San Lorenzo and Boca remain on course for a semi-final clash if they can negotiate tricky quarter-finals. For River, it’s yet another year of waiting to add a third Libertadores, but for Ramón Díaz’s San Lorenzo, the club’s first ever win in this competition is still a possibility, thanks to an amazing half hour from nine men who had looked beaten.
For the goals, check back on Friday evening.