By: Simon Edwards

Palmeiras came into the game with what looked like it may be a completely insurmountable advantage but this is the CONMEBOL Libertadores, a competition where anything can happen and tonight in São Paulo, everything happened.

River Plate‘s 2-0 win was enough to provide plenty of drama on the night, but it was Palmeiras who booked a spot in January 30th’s Libertadores Final 3-2 on aggregate on a drama-filled night in Brazil’s biggest city.

In last week’s first leg in Argentina, River Plate asserted themselves on the night but were undone by some resolute defending, lightening quick counters and a moment of ill-discipline. Flying winger Rony pounced on an Armani mistake to give the visitors the lead before Luiz Adriano doubled the lead and Matías Viña made it three after a Jorge Carrascal red card.

With the 3-0 advantage in hand, Palmeiras were hoping to manage the game tonight in São Paulo and ensure a low-key second leg that would send them progressing to the final. In the opening twenty minutes it looked as though that may come to fruition despite plenty of River Plate possession. River were successful attacking down the right with right back Gonzalo Montiel whipping in plenty of crosses into dangerous areas, but the Brazilians seemed to be well set up to deal with the threat.

With Paraguayan center back Gustavo Gomez organizing, the Palmeiras backline, which had conceded a Libertadores-best 4 goals coming into the night, looked solid until Gómez’ fellow Paraguayan Robert Rojas came up for a Nico De La Cruz out-swinging corner and fired a powerful header into the top corner to give River a 1-0 lead. As with the first leg, River Plate had been dominating possession, but now they also had a goal and momentum.

Ten minutes later another unsettling blow came for the Brazilians as dominant defender Gómez was forced off through injury. Palmeiras’ solid defensive unit was under pressure and without their top center back, but just needed to make it to the break in order to regroup and attempt to see the game out.

Palmeiras were attempting to do just that when Nicolas De La Cruz whipped a cross into the near post which was missed by everyone before bouncing up to an unmarked Rafael Santos Borré. The Colombian striker poked the ball into the open net, pumped his fist, and waved his teammates back for the restart. The comeback was well and truly on for the Argentines.

After the break Palmeiras looked to have regained a little confidence and impetus. One goal would surely derail the growing River optimism and put the tie out of reach. The tricky Rony, the creative Scarpa, and the inventive Luiz Adriano all tried to link up but the Libertadores’ highest scoring attack wasn’t quite clicking and the wind was now strong in the Argentine sails.

Just five minutes into the second half, River’s Fabrizio Angileri hung a deep cross up at the far post for Montiel to arrive and the right back subsequently fired a measured low volley across the keeper. River had done it! Wild celebrations ensued with the score now 3-0 on the night, enough to force penalties. Everything was going the way of the Argentines and they looked hungry to restart play and search out what now looked like an inevitable aggregate winner. Back to the middle for kick off when the referee puts his hand to his head and River faces turn to confusion and anxious glances.

Montiel was surely onside?

The officials agreed, but ruled that in the build up Borré had returned from an offside position to recover a loose ball. It was marginal, it was inadvertent and for River it was heartbreaking.

Despite the setback, River Plate continued to push while Palmeiras were limited to only a few potentially dangerous counter-attacks led by Rony and Scarpa.

With 70 minutes played, the man who kick-started the dramatic comeback looked as though he may just derail it. Robert Rojas found himself turned by Rony and as the Brazilian winger was driving away Rojas bundled him to the ground. The robust defender was already on a yellow and with that River were down to 10 men. Perhaps the Argentine recovery was set to fizzle out?

However Gallardo’s men kept battling and just a few minutes later tricky winger Matías Suárez went down in the box and the referee pointed to the spot, sending the River bench into euphoria once again. However after a lengthy VAR decision, the referee ruled that Suárez went down with insufficient contact from the Palmeiras defender, denying River of a golden chance to pull level on aggregate.

With all the second half drama, the added on time was sure to be substantial and as the board was raised to show 9 minutes, River Plate’s spirits were once again lifted.

The Argentines threw cross after cross into the box and it seemed inevitable that one would be deflected into the net. On one occasion Rony led a Palmeiras counter with a chance to see the tie out, but a slip by fellow attacker Breno meant River Plate could regain possession and return to bombarding Weverton’s goal.

On 98 minutes it looked as though River had finally done it. A clearance was headed back into the box and as it broke in the area Borré looked to have been taken out by Palmeiras’ Chilean centre back Benjamin Kuscevic. The referee went to check the monitor and with apparent strong contact in the back, surely this time the review would go the way of the Argentines. The referee seemed to agree until his colleagues pointed to a previous incident showing an offside as the ball was sent back in.

No penalty, no comeback, and Palmeiras scraped through to the CONMEBOL Libertadores Final.

Palmeiras’ first leg victory had been professional, clinical and decisive. Tonight, River Plate were the protagonists throughout, but Palmeiras managed to get the job done. The Brazilians will have to regroup, but on their day they are a very solid unit with plenty of dangerous, pacey, creative attacking firepower. They now await tomorrow night’s clash between Santos and Boca Juniors to learn who they’ll face in the Final.

This loss will sting for River Plate, but for Palmeiras the dream of Gloria Eterna continues.