On Wednesday evening, River Plate qualified for the last sixteen of the Copa Libertadores in nail-biting fashion, beating San José of Bolivia 3-0 but needing Mexican side Tigres to get a result with their reserves away to Juan Aurich in Peru. Tigres won 5-4, meaning River scraped second place in Group 7. What that means is that we now have a very real chance of a superclásico River v Boca double-header in the last sixteen. The Libertadores knockout stage is seeded; the best group winner plays the worst runner-up, the second-best winner plays the second-worst runner up, and so on – and as the standings currently have it, that would pit Boca (who lead the group winner standings) against River. But with some groups finished, some having one game to go, and a few teams having two group games still to go, it’s not a sure thing yet. So, what needs to happen?
- Boca have already won Group 5, and have maximum points from five matches. In a weak group, they’ve also racked up by far the best goal difference in the competition, +15. River, as worst runner-up so far, have seven points and a goal difference of +2 from their six matches. By far the most likely way to get a superclásico in the next round is for Boca to consolidate their place as best group side, and for River to finish as worst runners-up.
- Boca play their final group game on Thursday evening, shortly after this blog post goes up, at home to Palestino of Chile. If Boca win that match, and the team who finish second in their group do better than 7 points with a goal difference of +2, they’ll be above River. At present, Palestino have 7 points and a goal difference of +2 (but fewer goals scored than River) whilst Wanderers have 7 points and a goal difference of -2 – so if, for instance, Boca and Zamora both win this evening, whichever team ends up in second place – either Palestino or Wanderers – would be below River in the standings (Zamora are out of contention, with no points so far). If that happens, with Boca as best group winner and River as only second worst runner-up, the two sides would be kept apart by the draw until the final (although if two sides from the same country reach the semis, they have to play at that stage, so in reality they can’t meet in the final).
- If River do finish as worst second-placed side, there’s one more possibility to nix the last sixteen super, but it’s a very slim one; Corinthians, in Group 2, have twelve points with two games still to go. Winning both of those would put them onto eighteen points – the same total as Boca would have in this situation, because remember Boca have to have won for it to be possible for River to not be the worst runners-up. Goal difference comes into play then, though, and Boca would have at least +16 there, with Corinthians currently on +8. Corinthians have a significantly harder group than Boca (they host San Lorenzo later tonight and visit local rivals São Paulo in their last game), and are hardly the most freewheeling side at the best of times. Expecting them to win by a cricket score twice in a row against opponents not too far off their own standard is asking a bit much. Of course, a Boca draw (or loss!) tonight would ensure River finish below whoever gets second in Boca’s group, but would leave a slightly more realistic chance of Corinthians beating Boca to the top seed.
So in short, if Boca and Zamora – who are rubbish, remember – both win tonight, we almost definitely won’t have a River v Boca last sixteen tie. If Boca win and Zamora don’t (very likely) we almost definitely will, and if Boca draw (or lose), we might or might not. Even then, of course, if results somehow conspire to make River the second-worst runners up, only for Corinthians to next week overtake Boca as best winners, we’d have the second seeds playing the fifteenth seeds – that is, Boca v River.
I’m not Nate Silver, but about fifteen minutes before Boca kick off, I’m going to rank our chances of a superclásico double header in the next round at somewhere around 90%. Having said that, this time last night River’s chances of even being in the second round looked positively anaemic, so who even knows really?