Thursday night was supposed to see Boca Juniors’ first team back out on the Bombonera pitch and coasting to the inevitable home win which would take them through to an all-Argentine quarter-final with Estudiantes in the 2009 Copa Libertadores. Someone, though, forgot to tell Defensor Sporting. The Uruguayan club won by the bare minimum after a rock-solid second half defensive display to eliminate the six times winners of the Copa. It’s Boca first home defeat in the Copa for six years – twenty-five matches – as well as the first ever Copa Libertadores victory for a Uruguayan side in La Bombonera.
Thursday’s story really began with last week’s late equalising goal from Diego Vera in the Estadio Centenario. That goal made it 2-2, rather than 1-2 to Boca, and whilst the Argentine side still had an away goals advantage, and a second leg in the near impregnable Bombonera to come, the psychological difference to Defensor was evident. Fast-forward a week, and the Uruguayan beach-side club (their stadium, in central Montevideo, is wedged between a beach, a fairground and a main road) took to the pitch aware of the task that faced them, and determined to see it through.
Boca didn’t begin well, attacking without verve as their visitors showed a patience that was to serve them well. Defensor knew that trying to hit Boca hard and fast wouldn’t be wise, so they sat back and relied on their pace on the counter-attack. In the 27th minute, the calculations paid off thanks to Diego De Souza. With Boca’s full backs not at the races, the visitors flooded forward and De Souza got to a low centre ahead of his marker before slamming the ball inside the near post.
The first half was played out by a Boca side who were trying hard, but seemed to be forcing things a bit too much. Rodrigo Palacio was lively but couldn’t link up with Martín Palermo, whilst Juan Román Riquelme’s passing lacked the imagination of old. The trend continued into the second half, so with half an hour to go Carlos Ischia, the Boca manager, made a bold decision – he sent on Nicolás Gaitán and Luciano Figueroa. When Sebastián Battaglia’s injury minutes later forced him into adding Leandro Gracián to the fray, Boca now had three playmakers and three strikers. As the last 30 minutes ticked by, the home side were pinning Defensor further and further back.
The Uruguayans, though, were playing with garra again, and not letting their hosts have anything for free. They were finding it difficult to hold the ball up themselves, let alone build anything (although Vera tried to lob Roberto Abbondanzieri from close to forty yards out, and there were moments when the lead might have been doubled), but equally, Boca just couldn’t break down the defence. When Martín Palermo, eight yards out and right in the middle of the goal, was crowded off the ball by three markers, the writing was on the wall. Goalkeeper Martín Silva made three brilliant saves – one each from Riquelme, Palermo and Palacio – in the closing minutes, but Defensor held out for a 3-2 victory.
After the match Boca’s fans applauded the effort of the players, but vocally made their displeasure known to manager Carlos Ischia. How long he’ll last, now that his gamble of sacrificing the league campaign to try and win the Copa has backfired, we shall see. Celebrating with the visitors was their midfielder, formerly of Boca’s own parish, Julio Marchant. One Boca old boy will, at least, be playing in the quarter-finals.
Copa Libertadores 2009, last 16 second leg: Boca Juniors 0 – 1 Defensor Sporting (URU) (Defensor Sporting win 3-2 on aggregate)