Copa Libertadores: Football finally takes center stage as Boca & River prepare to meet in Madrid
When the bitter Buenos Aires rivals advanced to the final of South America’s biggest club competition, setting up a first-ever Superclasico showdown at this stage in the competition’s history, fireworks were expected.
But few would have predicted it would be so explosive as to force the concluding leg of the tie to be played out 6,000 miles away from Buenos Aires, across the Atlantic in Madrid.
How we reached this point has already filled thousands upon thousands of column inches around the world.
Following the thrilling 2-2 draw in the first leg at Boca Junior’s La Bombonera stadium on November 11, the denouement was perfectly set for the return fixture at River Plate’s El Monumental home two weeks later.
That game never happened, after shocking scenes that saw River fans attack the bus carrying Boca players to the stadium, injuring several of them while leaving others exposed to police tear gas fired to disperse the baying crowds.
Amid a maelstrom of indecision, anger and farce, the game was first delayed and then postponed, before eventually being moved to a different continent by the South American football confederation, CONMEBOL.
It will now take place at Real Madrid's iconic 80,000-seater Estadio Santiago Bernabeu home, which under any other circumstances would be a fine and fitting venue for one of football's grandest occasions.
But while Boca Juniors and River Plate are both now in Madrid preparing for the game – followed by thousands of their endlessly loyal fans – neither team wants to be there.
Indeed, the contentious step to relocate the game has at least united them in one thing: opposition to CONMEBOL's decision.
River, meanwhile, have lamented the loss of home advantage, even if brought about by the hardcore element of the club’s own fans.
The blame game has reached far and wide – from the mayor of Buenos Aires accusing “mafia” elements of the River fan base from being behind the initial bus attack, to former Argentina and Boca legend Diego Maradona directly blaming the country’s president.
Meanwhile, one thing lost in the fog of tear gas and endless stream of invective is that a football game could finally, exhaustingly break out on Sunday.
And judging by the first leg, it could even be one worthy of the long and storied history of the competition it is played in.
That game back on November 11 saw Boca twice take the lead, only to be pegged back both times by a gutsy River team in an intense encounter that flowed from end to end.
When the two teams meet again on Sunday – almost a month later – we will finally see some football again.
What time is the game?
The game kicks off at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium on Sunday, December 9, at 19:30 GMT.
Fans from both clubs will be at the 80,000-seater Bernabeu, with 25,000 tickets allocated to each team, but only 5,000 on sale in Argentina.
Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi will also be in attendance as a special guest, although Cristiano Ronaldo has reportedly declined an invitation.
For River Plate, striker Rafael Santos Borre is suspended and veteran forward Nacho Scocco is likely to miss out through a calf injury again, meaning Lucas Pratto will lead the line up front.
However, Marcelo Gallardo will have the boost of skipper Leonardo Ponzio returning to the base of midfield after recovering from the thigh strain that kept him out of the first leg.
For Boca, key winger Cristian Pavon, an Argentina international, will reportedly be fit to start after recovering from the muscle injury which forced him off in tears during the first leg.
Pablo Perez was a worry after suffering an eye injury in the bus attack that caused the postponement of the second leg, but is expected to be fit to start on Sunday on the left of midfield.
First-choice keeper Esteban Andrada is tipped to come in for Agustin Rossi after regaining fitness.
Head to head
The pair have met more than 200 times down the years in the Superclasico, with Boca ahead in the overall standings on 88 wins and River on 81.
Boca will be aiming for a lucky seventh Copa Libertadores title to put them level with fellow Argentine club Independiente on the all-time list, while River are out for a fourth title in all and first since 2015.