Last night, Abel Ferreira’s Palmeiras gave themselves a real chance of making their first Copa Libertadores since 2001 with a near-perfect performance. The Brazillian side ran out 3-0 winners in Buenos Aires over Argentinian heavyweights River Plate, despite coming into the game as underdogs. Rony, Luiz Adriano and Matias Viña the goalscorers for Verdão.
River Plate, the club with the third most Libertadores titles (4) had featured in the last two finals (2018 & 2019) and came into this match as bookies favourites. The fact that the first leg was at home at El Monumental, where River hadn’t lost a game since early November, further pointed toward a probable victory for the Argentinian’s.
Ferreira’s tactics deserve all the credit for this victory. It was a real managerial masterclass from the Penafiel-born man. From the very first whistle, it was clear that Palmeiras set up in a way as to give River the illusion of control, allowing Marcelo Gallardo’s men to knock the ball around patiently with no pressure, particularly in midfield. Palmeiras’ tightly knit unit crucially only allowed River to play side-to-side, something which frustrated the Buenos Aires side more and more as the game wore on. Porco had to be disciplined and remain switched on throughout, knowing that a lapse in concentration against a River who had the lion’s share of possession and who were waiting for the right opportunity to break the lines could prove costly.
After several unfruitful River attacks, it was the São Paulo side who struck first, albeit with a slice of fortune. A routine Gabriel Menino cross was dealt with poorly by goalkeeper Armani, the ball then came out to Rony who rifled home to make it 1-0. Going a goal down only made River more desperate in their attacks, forcing the issue which resulted in overhit crosses (just two crosses completed from nine attempts in the first half) , sloppy passes and predictable overall play that was easy for Ferreira’s men to deal with. The goal didn’t change anything as far as Palmeiras were concerned, they continued to play the same way, defending patiently and waiting for the right time to spring another killer counter-attack. For all River’s huff and puff in the first half, they managed 72% possession but registered just one shot on target, the same amount as Palmeiras. The tactics were working a treat.
The second Palmeiras goal which came just after half-time was a successful attempt at a move Verdão had continually tried throughout the game. After winning the ball in their own half, one pass into Luiz Adriano set him away on a one-man counter-attack, he burst through and slotted calmly, putting the ball underneath the sprawled Armani. River Plate’s defensive line moved further and further forward as the game wore on as their desperation for a goal increased, which only played right into Palmeiras’ hands.
The third and final goal came after a moment of madness from Jorge Carrascal. The young Colombian, clearly frustrated at the evening’s proceedings lashed out at Gabriel Menino, wildly swinging his leg toward him in no attempt to win the ball. The result, a red card and a free-kick in a promising position. Palmeiras scored from the free-kick pulling off a wonderfully executed training ground routine, Matias Viña putting the finishing touch on a perfect evening in Argentina with a header into the bottom corner.
A magical evening for Palmeiras and a night where in a high pressure situation, Ferreira got his tactics spot on. With a second-leg coming up in Brazil, the 42-year-old will be quietly confident about his chances of guiding Palmeiras to their first Copa Libertadores final in over 20 years and in the process, possibly becoming just the second Portuguese manager to win the illustrious competition.
Palmeiras v River Plate is scheduled for 13th January, 00:30 UK and Portugal time.