The Bombonera provided a suitably dramatic setting for the first leg of the Copa Libertadores de America final on Wednesday evening, and hosts Boca Juniors showed they were up to the occasion by sweeping aside Brazil's Gremio 3-0. The result leaves the Argentinians on the brink of their sixth title in South America's most prestigious club tournament, an achievement they will be confident of completing at the Estadio Olimpico in Porto Alegre next week.
Rodrigo Palacio, Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Ledesma were the
men on target for the
Xeneizes, although Riquelme for one is not reaching for
the champagne just yet: "We're happy with the result. We
wanted to go to Brazil with a nice cushion and we've achieved
that. Whether it's enough, we'll just have to wait and see
next week. There are still ninety minutes left."
Palacio times it right
It came as no surprise to see Boca start the game by pushing Gremio back into their own half. After a confident opening, though, the hosts started to fluff their lines, pumping long balls forward to Martin Palermo instead of channelling play through Riquelme or probing down the flanks with Ledesma and Nery Cardozo. With the exposed Palermo fighting a lone battle against Gremio's central defensive pairing of William and Teco, Boca looked short of ideas.
The Brazilians made life even harder for the home favourites by pushing up to deny them space and then getting forward at speed whenever the opportunity presented itself, Boca struggling to cope with the forward forays of full-backs Patricio and Lucio, and the speed and mobility of Carlos Eduardo, Tcheco and Diego Souza. It was no surprise then to see the visitors carve out the first clear-cut chances of the game, Boca keeper Mauricio Caranta saving bravely at the feet of Tuta, before the unmarked Tcheco skewed wide from the edge of the area.
Unimpressive to this point, Boca nevertheless showed the Brazilians how it was done on 18 minutes when Riquelme played a free-kick from the right into the path of Palermo. The striker's miscued attempt on goal fell invitingly for team-mate Palacio, who stroked home unchallenged to give Boca the lead.
Undeterred, Gremio stuck to their original game plan, pushing men forward in numbers but without leaving gaps at the back. Hearteningly for the home side, though, Riquelme gradually assumed control of proceedings, Ibarra began to forage forward, and Ledesma put his tireless running to good effect. The spectacle improved as the half wore on as both sides showed their attacking intent, although it was Boca who came closest to scoring again through Palacio on the half-hour mark and Riquelme just before the interval.
Boca step it up
After a cagey first-half it was all change in the second. Gremio cranked up the excitement levels four minutes in when Tuta almost levelled from Carlos Eduardo's centre only to be denied by Claudio Morel Rodriguez's fine interception.
Boca hit back with three excellent chances of their own in a
two-minute spell. First up, Clemente Rodriguez combined cleverly
with Ever Banega to put Palacio through on goal, but the
striker's shot was somehow cleared off the line by Teco.
Palacio spurned another chance a minute later after Palermo had
nodded down a cross, and then Cardozo tested Saja's reflexes
with a fine strike.
Gremio's hopes were dealt a severe blow when Sandro Goiano was sent off, prompting coach Mano Menezes to bring on ball-playing midfielder Lucas in place of his only out-and-out striker Tuta in an effort to retain possession. The move did not pay off. No sooner had the youngster come on than Riquelme added a second 17 minutes from time with a fizzing low free-kick, the playmaker's sixth of the Copa campaign.
With their opponents rocking, Boca went all out for a third,
although their attacking intent almost cost them dear when Diego
Souza missed a golden opportunity on 87 minutes after Caranta had
spilled Lucas's drive.
Miguel Russo's men breathed a collective sigh of relief before Ledesma brought their successful evening to a close by heading home following a goalmouth scramble.
With a 3-0 lead in the bank, next week's return fixture in
Porto Alegre looks a lot less daunting, not that Paraguayan
defender Rodriguez is taking anything for granted: "The main
thing was to win, and if we could score a couple of goals then all
the better. We managed that and although it's not over,
we've got a significant advantage. They are a good side who
grow in stature at home, so we need to be on our guard."
After suffering their sixth consecutive away defeat in the competition, the mood was understandably gloomy in the Gremio camp. "As you could see, it's very difficult to contain Boca when you've only got ten men," lamented William. "We've got to really up our game for the second leg. It's difficult but not impossible."