With two matches remaining of the 2008 Torneo Clausura, River Plate edged narrowly ahead of Estudiantes in the table, and with the opening of a two-point gap at the top of the table they can keep alive their dream of claiming a first trophy in four years, in Diego Simeone’s first campaign in charge. River played relegation-threatened Colón in Santa Fé and won 2-1 despite going a man down just twenty minutes in, whilst Estudiantes, at the same time, were away to Huracán and, despite going ahead early on through a Seba Verón penalty, could only draw.
River, with Diego Simeone still, this late on in the campaign, searching for his ideal team, started with a flexible 3-3-3-1, Ariel Ortega granted his first start since May’s superclásico against Boca Juniors. Colón had pressure too – a win would give them almost guaranteed safety in the battle against relegation. It was they who started with more impetus, the midfield trio of Alejandro Capurro, Germán Rivarola and Sebastián Romero outplaying their opposite numbers. Things looked to be going the hosts’ way when Leonardo Ponzio got a second booking after only 18 minutes, and Simeone was obliged to re-draw the defensive strategy.
Following Ponzio’s ejection, River, ironically, looked more focussed. Oscar Ahumada, in superb form since a public argument with the club’s fans after the superclásico, grew in confidence whilst Ortega demanded the responsibility of creating. With the effort they put in, River didn’t allow Colón to make the extra man show, the only real chance coming when Darío Gandín hit the post. At the break the visitors were still deservedly level.
In the second half, Antonio Mohamed sent on attacking midfielder Lucas Acosta for the more defensively-minded Pablo Jérez, but it was River who broke the deadlock, left-back Cristián Villagra finishing like a seasoned striker to score his first River goal after Matías Abelairas and Ortega had combined to set him free. A couple more changes from Mohamed’s Colón side forced Simeone to withdraw Sebastián Abreu for a midfielder of his own, Augusto Fernádez, to even up the battle in the middle. With fifteen minutes to go, Ortega, joint man-of-the-match with Ahumada, was withdrawn and his replacement, Andrés Ríos, who within a minute had hared down the left, beating two men, and switched the play brilliantly to the right, where young Chilean Alexis Sánchez hit a beautiful shot to double River’s lead.
Gandín equalised almost accidentally with ten minutes left, and the closing minutes were played almost entirely in the River half, but Simeone’s men, a man down but having played as if with a full complement for most of the match, hung on for a deserved win.
Meanwhile, Estudiantes, having kicked off at the same time as their title rivals, were dropping two crucial points away to Mohamed’s old club, Huracán. Almost the first action of the half saw Juan Sebastián Verón send a long ball forward from well inside his own half, which looked like it was going nowhere. But Huracán goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero had other ideas. Racing from his line, he made a total hash of his clearance and Iván Moreno y Fabianesi smacked in a shot which was deflected away from the goal by the a combination of the arm and chest of Angel Puertas. The referee gave a penalty, Verón stepped up, and just four minutes in, Estudiantes were leading.
Huracán responded by upping the tempo even as Estudiantes stepped forward to defend further away from their own goal. Federico Nieto had two good opportunities which went begging, but Estudiantes were fashioning chances of their own to put the match to bed early on. They didn’t take them, though, and were pegged back 26 minutes in when Nieto made it third time lucky, rising above his momentarily disinterested markers to power home a header and make it 1-1. For the remainder of the half, the ball almost didn’t find itself tarnished by contact with the grass at all, both sides electing to play it long and keep in the air.
The second half looked nervous and Estudiantes, as news came in of River’s lead in Santa Fé, knew they had to take three points. Aside from two or three shots from mid-distance, they had nothing to say for themselves, and thus River, who play Olimpo in El Monumental next weekend, could claim the title if Estudiantes drop points again… against Colón. After four years of waiting, though, no Gallina will be counting their chickens just yet…